When it happened, the first trade deadline deal of the season only made waves because it involved the storied Los Angeles Lakers.
The parameters of the deal were as follows: Rui Hachimura – an inconsistent yet gifted fourth-year forward – for Kendrick Nunn and an assortment of second-round picks.
The little attention the deal did receive quickly lost its sails after bigger dominoes began to fall. The Lakers themselves even managed to add more name notable players to their roster. Once the dust cleared on all the transitions, Hachimura was largely seen as an afterthought.
Fast forward to the tail end of Monday’s first-round overtime thriller between the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, and Hachimura has become such a threat to the opponent’s defense that Jaren Jackson Jr. thought it was wise not to sag off of him to help on a drive by the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
What the heck happened? How has Hachimura become this important?
And did this first-round matchup become the birthplace of a bonafide NBA star?
What Hachimura Is Doing in This Series
Through the first four games of this series, Hachimura is averaging 18.0 points and 5.5 rebounds on 71.6% true shooting (second in the entire playoffs) in 27.5 minutes per game.
The Lakers are one of the best teams at scoring in the paint (sixth in the NBA in points in the paint per game, per NBA.com). As a result, Memphis’ game plan coming into this series has been to pack the paint by having off-ball defenders sag off their assignments and float near the interior.
This strategy helps fortify the team’s interior defense, but it also leaves it vulnerable to outside shooting. In theory, Memphis is willing to concede this advantage because the Lakers are a poor 3-point shooting team. On the season, Los Angeles ranked 24th in 3-point makes per game (10.8), 26th in 3-point attempts per game (31.2) and 25th in 3-point percentage (34.6%).
However, basketball is still a game played by humans. And when it comes to human behavior, theory doesn’t always play out the same in practice.
Hachimura, a 31.9% 3-point shooter during the regular season, has decided that he won’t sit around idly as Memphis ignores him to protect the paint. Instead, he has consistently burned them for overhelping by knocking down his lightly contested 3s (10 of 16 in the series) and attacking unbalanced closeouts off the dribble.
Another thing Memphis has tried to do is hide weaker defenders (like Luke Kennard) on Hachimura in the hopes that it can have more shooting on the floor to help bolster the offense.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Hachimura is a big body who knows how to use his strength to carve out space and get his own shot (so much so that he garnered some comparisons to Kawhi Leonard during the draft process).
So whenever Memphis tries putting someone like Kennard on him, Hachimura is able to punish them inside for trying to be slick.
In Game 4, Hachimura had his worst game of the series – scoring just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting from the floor. However, he posted his best plus-minus of the series (plus-18) because his scoring in the first three games has made him a viable spacer for the Lakers.
Think about the clip we opened with. If it had been Jarred Vanderbilt (career 28.8% 3-point shooter) in that corner instead of Hachimura, there’s no question Jackson would have helped off him to derail James’ foray to the rim. Memphis is content with letting Vanderbilt try and beat them. That is no longer the case with Hachimura. Now, Memphis is treating him like a marksman, which opens up driving lanes for his teammates.
Hachimura’s impact is not just a one-way ordeal either. The Lakers may be a great paint-scoring team, but Memphis is the best one in the entire league – averaging 58.4 points in the paint per game.
And even without frontcourt staples like Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies still have a handful of bruisers who are capable of bullying in the interior. Vanderbilt is one of the most versatile and impactful defenders in the league. But his kryptonite as a defender is that he is susceptible to strength on the inside (second clip below).
Meanwhile, as we mentioned, Hachimura is armed with a chiseled figure, which makes him better equipped to battle with Memphis’ ferocious frontcourt (first clip).
Is This the Beginning of Hachimura’s Rise?
If you’ve been watching playoff basketball for long enough, you’ve likely heard some sort of maxim referring to the postseason as a “game of matchups.” This is true for teams facing teams that may be good or bad matchups for their roster/style. But it is also true for players, especially role players.
In the right matchup, a role player can look like a high-end starter. While in the wrong matchup, they might make the casual observer question why they are even getting playing time to begin with.
In this series, Hachimura has averaged 27.5 minutes compared to Vanderbilt’s 21.5. This doesn’t mean that Hachimura is definitively a better player than Vanderbilt. It means that the Grizzlies present a better matchup for him.
When Vanderbilt is on the floor, Memphis can sag off him and protect the paint with little to no repercussions because he can’t burn them with his jumper or off the dribble. And on defense, his massive impact is mitigated to a degree because of Memphis’ physicality.
For Hachimura, this matchup lets him feast offensively and enables him to focus on his strengths as a defender. Hachimura excels at using his size to defend in isolation or protect the rim.
If Los Angeles advances to the next round and plays either the Golden State Warriors or Sacramento Kings, it is likely that Vanderbilt will become the more useful option. Neither of those teams can match Memphis’ level of physicality, and both of them run a boatload of dynamic off-ball actions – actions Vanderbilt is much better at defending than Hachimura.
Plus, if the Lakers play Sacramento, the Kings don’t have a venerable paint protector like Jackson that they can have roam off of Vanderbilt and into the paint, so Vanderbilt’s offensive weaknesses in that series would be far less damaging.
So while Hachimura has been awesome in the first round, a great deal of it is due to the context surrounding this specific series. Still, it takes a special player to rise to the occasion the way he has, even if it is against a more favorable matchup.
He’s proven that he’s a lot more than an afterthought. He’s proven that he’s one of the most important deadline acquisitions of the 2022-23 season.