Rui Hachimura’s trade is a consequence of wizards’ Achilles heel: bad draws

Three and a half years ago, the Washington Wizards had a valuable opportunity to acquire a game-changing player. They held the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. With that pick, they picked Rui Hachimura in hopes of turning him into at least one solid starter they could hold onto for the long haul.

It won’t happen now. Washington traded Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday for guard Kendrick Nunn and three future second-round picks. The Wizards also generated a $6.3 million trade exception in the process. While Nunn, his expiring contract, future picks and the trade exception have some utility, their overall value pales in comparison to the value of the 2019 ninth overall pick on the day it was made.

To put it bluntly: The Wizards will have squandered the opportunity the first-round pick represented if their front office doesn’t overthrow Nunn, one or more of the incoming second-round picks, or the trade exception in a steal of a trade to down the line.

Hachimura’s departure wouldn’t be so infuriating if Wizards could report at least one significant draft success in recent years. But the sad truth is that the team has had five top-15 picks since 2018, and none of the players the team has drafted have yet shown they would become a top-tier starter in Washington.

The futility of the draft is the main reason Wizards find themselves in the predicament they face now, in the midst of another mediocre season. High-performing teams with enduring rosters tend to write well. The worst teams systematically resume badly.

In 2018, the Wizards selected Troy Brown Jr. 15th. They could have chosen guard Anfernee Simons instead.

In 2019, they selected Hachimura.

Cam Johnson left the board two picks later. Tyler Herro, the 2021-22 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, went 13th. Grant Williams lasted to No. 22. Golden State drafted guard Jordan Poole 28th, and Poole is on the verge of stardom. San Antonio grabbed forward Keldon Johnson 29th.

Deni Avdija, a Washington forward picked ninth in 2020, is a solid rotational player who has already made a defensive impact due to his effort, positional size and versatility. But while he shows promise as a playmaker, his attacking development has stalled. The Wizards intend to remain patient with Avdija, who just turned 22.

Meanwhile, Tyrese Haliburton, who was drafted three times after Avdija, became a likely All-Star point guard after a trade from Sacramento to Indiana. Tyrese Maxey (21st draft) is a coveted goaltender from Philadelphia. Desmond Bane, the final first-round pick, helped Memphis become one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

In 2021, Washington drafted Corey Kispert 15th, and Kispert lived up to expectations as a long-range shooter and floor spacer. But he’s not a future star. To be fair, few of the players selected after Kispert in this draft look like future stars either, although Quentin Grimes, Bones Hyland and Herb Jones – all drafted from No. 25 to No. 35 – exceeded expectations, in particular on the defensive side.

Of course, writing in retrospect is 100% easier in hindsight. I’m not saying it’s easy to write well. I’m not claiming that I could have done better. Anyone can identify Haliburton as a future All-Star now that he’s averaging 20.2 points and 10.2 assists this season and propelled the would-be Indiana Pacers to playoff position. playoffs before injuring his elbow and knee on January 11.

Wizards shouldn’t be held responsible for not hitting all of their recent draft picks. Even the teams that pick up the best don’t have an immaculate track record. No team is perfect.

But over the past decade, Washington has been far from even below par with its drafting. Washington hasn’t had a major draft success since selecting John Wall first overall in 2010 and Bradley Beal third overall in 2012.

Otto Porter Jr., the Wizards’ third pick in 2013, has proven to be a solid rotation player. But it’s impossible to ignore that CJ McCollum went 10th and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th.

High-profile duds — including 2011 sixth pick Jan Veselý, who lasted just 162 NBA games before returning to Europe — are the biggest reason for the franchise’s mediocrity. The Wizards have tended to struggle to attract quality free agents, but teams that struggle in free agency try to make up for it by making it through the draft.

And now wizards are in danger of having another Veselý level whiff. Johnny Davis, the 10th pick last summer after being Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore at Wisconsin, has not only been unable to earn NBA minutes but is also churning out unimpressive numbers in the G League. Davis is only 20, and scouts rightly point out that he had a lackluster freshman season in college before blossoming the following year. Still, initial returns from Davis’ play are worrisome.

Johnny Davis, the 10th pick in the 2022 NBA draft, has struggled so far as a pro. (Yukihito Taguchi / USA Today)

Hachimura showed promise. He recorded four 30-point games as a pro, including Saturday, which turned out to be his last game with the Wizards.

Its development in Washington has encountered several significant obstacles. An injury interrupted his rookie season. Then the pandemic cut short his rookie season and shortened the offseason before his sophomore year. Last season, he missed Washington’s first 39 games due to an excused absence to attend to personal business after his stint with Japan at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Wizarding officials couldn’t have been more supportive of him during this difficult time. In retrospect, however, those missed matches slowed his growth.

You could argue that Hachimura would still be with the Wizards right now had the team not traded for Kyle Kuzma in 2021 as part of the massive deal that sent Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. Without Kuzma in the fold, Hachimura would have received more playing time and may not have wanted to be traded.

But at the same time, it would be hard to argue that the Wizards ever came close to developing Hachimura’s potential on the defensive end or persuading him to be a selfish player on the offensive end.

It’s about Hachimura, but it’s also about wizards.

Team officials would – rightly – say they still have a chance to pull off their 2019 first-round pick, even with Hachimura now gone. Nunn’s expiring contract could allow the Wizards to re-sign Kuzma in July and build their roster without going into the luxury tax. One or more of the incoming second-round picks could provide water for a trade or trades down the line. A business exception worth $6.3 million is a valuable list-building tool.

Wizards president and general manager Tommy Sheppard, who has led the franchise’s basketball operations department since mid-2019, has specialized in turning bad contracts or bad signings into positives.

He managed to trade John Wall’s supposedly untradable salary and a future protected first-round pick in Houston for Russell Westbrook.

Indeed, the Wizards ended up trading Brown, who had been their 2018 first-round pick, to Chicago in a three-team deal that brought center Daniel Gafford to Washington.

In the ensuing offseason, Sheppard overturned Westbrook’s massive salary in a creative and hugely complex five-team trade that netted the Wizards a slew of rotation players on smaller contracts, including Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and also allowed them to complete a signing and trade for Spencer Dinwiddie.

When Dinwiddie’s addition died out dramatically, Sheppard found a way to bag Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns in Dallas for Kristaps Porziņģis and a second-round pick. Porziņģis has played close to All-Star level this season.

So it wouldn’t be unusual for Sheppard to find creative use for Nunn, Nunn’s expiring contract, incoming second-round picks, or the trade exception.

But despite Sheppard’s creative trade gymnastics, the Wizards must find ways to avoid operating from less than ideal positions, such as having the Wall contract on their books or Dinwiddie failing to meet expectations.

It shouldn’t have been like this, with the Wizards heading into another mediocre season and staying far from vying for a conference title.

They needed to write better, as Hachimura’s business once again demonstrated.

Related Reading

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Red: In the Rui Hachimura trade, an $18.8 million cap looms large for the Lakers

Sharania and Aldridge: Wizards trade Rui Hachimura to Lakers: Why deal makes sense to him

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(Top photo by Rui Hachimura and Dorian Finney-Smith: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today)

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