Rui Hachimura is a projected lottery pick, but sits at No. 41 on our big board. The answer why is his lack of feel for the game.
“Feel for the game” is one of the most important traits needed to survive in the NBA. To compete against the top level of basketball athletes in the world, the ability to watch the game unfold and be able to make split decisions in an instant is vital to the success of NBA offenses and defenses. The windows to decide to move the ball to an open shooter, capitalize on open space, and rotate over in help defense are very small and close quickly, and a player needs to have the ability to process what develops on the floor around him quickly enough to make an impact.
It’s also a trait that is quite difficult to develop. Experience can help, and guys generally do get better at adjusting to the speed of decision-making necessary in the NBA as they mature; but it takes a long time to do so, and often if you don’t have at least some innate ability to process the game, any improvements made at the next level are unlikely to matter much. Players can add significant strength to transform their games, and we see non-shooters turn into shooters all the time now. But players with bad instincts and slow processing ability rarely make the same type of leap into suddenly becoming good decision-makers.
That idea makes the draft stock of Rui Hachimura very confusing. Hachimura is certainly a talented player, having been named 1st-team All-America and being a Wooden Award Finalist. He also has an NBA body, at 6-foot-8, 236 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. He’s been an enticing player for many teams, getting serious talk as high as the No. 11 pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The intrigue is there, as Rui is a powerful finisher who also moves well in space, made positive strides as a shooter, and has an NBA body.
The problem is that Hachimura fails the feel for the game test. He might have the worst instincts of any prospect in the class on the defensive end, routinely showcasing a lack of awareness and processing speed, and posting pedestrian steal (1.7) and block (2.4) rates despite having a good athletic profile. We can use Hachimura as an example of what lack of feel looks like on the court, and why it likely means he will get overdrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft.
There’s one play in particular that stands out as the primary example of Hachimura’s lack of awareness and processing ability. It’s the following clip from Gonzaga’s matchup at Portland on Jan. 19.
Rui starts the sequence switching two simple actions as part of Gonzaga’s defensive strategy. They keep him on the wing, and he ends up defending Franklin Porter (No. 13) after a dribble hand-off. Portland then runs a pick-and-roll to the right side of the floor, and Hachimura immediately overhelps into the lane, not recognizing that the pick-and-roll is already well-covered by Brandon Clarke and Josh Perkins. After the initial action is stopped, Hachimura misses the weak side play developing — a flare screen set against Killian Tillie to keep him from getting to a wide-open Porter, who sets up on the 3-point line for a skip pass. Hachimura reacts to this late with an out-of-control closeout and then doesn’t adjust well to Porter’s subsequent drive, forcing Tillie to help over top, leaving his man wide open for an easy kick-out 3. This play features three instances where Hachimura either lacked the awareness to process the play as it developed or the anticipation to cut off the action as it happened.
You can also see this in watching Rui defend the pick-and-roll, where he routinely freezes as he watches the play develop and ends up late to react.
And every once in a while, you see the full extent of how bad his instincts are in loose ball situations.
In contrast, let’s look at how Hachimura’s teammate, Brandon Clarke, handles two situations from that Tennessee game. In particular, pay attention to where Clarke is looking and moving in anticipation of Tennessee’s possible offensive actions.
You can see Clarke’s ability to process both what’s happening on-ball, and what might be coming off-ball very well in these two clips, and that’s something that Hachimura just doesn’t have. He doesn’t see the floor well when defending off-ball, and he doesn’t anticipate the likely progression of actions occurring around him. That Tennessee game-winner is a great example of that; the most likely outcomes of that play are Jordan Bone attacking the basket or a pick-and-pop to Admiral Schofield, and Rui is in position to defend neither well.
And this isn’t going to get easier, either. In college, there are less complex offensive actions run, and the game is slower by virtue of the collective processing speed and athleticism of college basketball players. In the NBA, both of those things ramp up to a much higher degree, and that decreases the margin for error a player has to make decisions and react to the play developing. To be able to pass the test as a team defender, you have to have a clear idea of what a team’s tendencies are, and put yourself in the position to defend the outcomes of a play based on those tendencies. If Hachimura couldn’t do that at the college level, he’s certainly going to struggle with it in the NBA when those decisions have to be made more quickly.
And that’s the main reason that Hachimura being projected in the lottery feels like a mistake. Even before you get to his shooting projection (He took just 36 3-pointers this year) and the utility of his offensive style of play, he projects with extremely low confidence that he’s going to be a playable NBA team defender. He could still have certain roles based on his talents, such as being an offense-focused bench 5 or an assignment one-on-one defender, where he’s much more capable. But neither of those roles are particularly valuable in the modern NBA, where team defensive systems ask so much of players. Without team defensive utility, bigs like Hachimura struggle to remain on NBA rosters at all, much less contribute to winning basketball. You can bet on his talent and athletic profile, which are solid; but without that feel for the game, he is very likely to burn a team who drafts him high in the 2019 NBA Draft.