Others slap palms to kick off choreographed greetings. Some leap for chest bumps. Hachimura and Westbrook’s handshake — a loose use of the term here — is gentler. The pair bow to each other.
“It was a long time ago. When we started playing together, I think it was from him,” Hachimura said this week, recalling the origins of the handshake. “He just wanted to bow like that … I was calling him senpai, which means like, in Japan, it’s what we always call older people, like in a respect way. He’s a leader, and I look to him; I like to play with him. It’s fun.”
Hachimura and Westbrook’s connection isn’t just on display during player introductions these days; it plays out all over the court and has led to some of Hachimura’s best highlights. The forward’s angry slam over Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart on March 27 came off a crafty bounce pass from Westbrook just inside the arc. So too did Hachimura’s one-handed dunk three days later against the Charlotte Hornets — this time, he collected a ball Westbrook heaved near half court.
Hachimura, the No. 9 overall pick in 2019, is playing with more force and better court awareness in the past 11 games, and, save an uninspired outing against Detroit on Thursday in which not a single member of Washington’s roster played well, his numbers have followed.
Hachimura is averaging 19.3 points, shooting 52 percent from the field and averaging 7.3 rebounds over that span. It’s a noticeable uptick from his season average of 14.2 points, 47.9 percent shooting and 5.8 rebounds over 40 games.
The 23-year-old has spoken about a change in his mentality this season, his willingness to step up when Bradley Beal is sidelined, as he has been for the past three Wizards games with a hip contusion. He is clearly less hesitant on court, hunting for open midrange jumpers that are available with Beal not there to take them and more aggressively finishing at the rim.
But when asked about his progress this season, Hachimura without fail credits Westbrook, the veteran nine years his senior.
“I think it’s all because of Russ, you know,” Hachimura said. “He always gets attention, especially offensively. He always has the ball, he’s a great playmaker, and he always gives us good opportunities. … Since last year, I think that’s the difference for me to make an easy score, a dunk.”
There are two primary ways Wizards Coach Scott Brooks sees Westbrook directly affecting Hachimura’s game.
The first is off-court and has to do with confidence. Brooks sees Westbrook injecting Hachimura with self-belief through pep talks that are potent because Hachimura admired Westbrook before they became teammates. But the point guard, as is his nature, is also demanding.
“He’s always challenging [Hachimura]: ‘C’mon man, you’ve got to do it every night. You’ve got to do it every day. You’ve got to do it every film session,’ ” Brooks said, quoting Westbrook. “ ‘You’ve got to do it every timeout. You’ve got to do it every halftime — you’ve got to lock in.’ Every game. That’s something that doesn’t show on the stat sheet.”
What does crop up in the team’s analytics is the pair’s on-court connection. With Westbrook streaking in on the majority of possessions to grab rebounds (he leads the Wizards with 10.3 per game), Hachimura can get a head-start running back downcourt in transition, where the 6-foot-8 power forward often has a size advantage over the guards parked at the other end.
The result is Hachimura’s recent uptick in dunks — the type of energy-creating buckets that then fuel the young player’s confidence like a feedback loop.
“You can see the last five games [there] have been more,” Brooks said this week. “Russell’s throwing it over the top, smalls are in jail. [Hachimura] gets in 'em, puts it in the basket. That’s what we need to do. They’ve got good synergy lately.”
Hachimura’s step toward becoming the more aggressive centerpiece the Wizards envision for the future is just that — a step. He is still highly reliant on his midrange jumper, which has accounted for 47 percent of his shots this season (he makes 43 percent of them, according to cleaningtheglass.com). Although he is finishing better at the rim, where buckets are a surer thing, he still takes only 32 percent of his shots there and 21 percent from three.
Washington would like to see those numbers skew more toward the three-point column, but overall, Brooks is happy with Hachimura’s newfound confidence and ability to anticipate plays developing. Westbrook sees the development, too.
“It just takes a little time when you get a chance to be around him and understand what he likes, what he don’t like, where he’s comfortable, where he’s not,” Westbrook said. “For me, that helps me out a lot, not just on the court but talking to him off the floor, explaining the game, understanding things he may or may not know. He’s young. Honestly, I’ve been in the league some time to be able to know a little more about the game and the season’s ups and downs.”
Hachimura does have one thing to school Westbrook on, at least. The veteran still needs to learn the proper Japanese term for his mentee.
“We actually call — kohai. Kohai’s like from like an older guy to a younger guy,” Hachimura said. “I’ve got to teach him still.”