Three and a half years ago, the Washington Wizards had a valuable opportunity to acquire a difference-making player. They held the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. With that pick, they chose Rui Hachimura with the hope of developing him into at least a solid starter they could keep for the long term.
That will not 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, the future picks and the trade exception have utility, their overall value pales in comparison to what the value of 2019’s ninth overall pick was the day it was made.
To put it bluntly: The Wizards will have wasted the opportunity that first-round choice represented if their front office doesn’t somehow flip Nunn, one or more of the incoming second-round picks or the trade exception into a steal of a trade down the line.
Hachimura’s departure would not feel so exasperating if the Wizards could point to at least one significant draft success in recent years. But the sad truth is the team has had five top-15 picks since 2018, and none of the players the team has drafted has shown yet that he will blossom into an upper-level starter in Washington.
Draft futility is the primary reason the Wizards find themselves in the predicament they face now, amid yet another mediocre season. High-performing teams with sustainable rosters tend to draft well. The worst teams consistently draft poorly.
In 2019, they selected Hachimura.
Cam Johnson went off the board two picks later. Tyler Herro, the 2021-22 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, went 13th. Grant Williams lasted until No. 22. Golden State drafted guard Jordan Poole 28th, and Poole is on the brink of stardom. San Antonio snagged forward Keldon Johnson 29th.
Deni Avdija, a forward Washington picked ninth in 2020, is a solid rotation player who already has made an impact defensively because of his effort, positional size and versatility. But while he has promise as a playmaker, his development on offense has stagnated. The Wizards intend to remain patient with Avdija, who only recently turned 22 years old.
Meanwhile, Tyrese Haliburton, who was drafted three picks after Avdija, has grown into a likely All-Star point guard following a trade from Sacramento to Indiana. Tyrese Maxey (drafted 21st) is a highly coveted guard with Philadelphia. Desmond Bane, the final pick of the first round, has helped Memphis become one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
In 2021, Washington drafted Corey Kispert 15th, and Kispert has met expectations as a long-range shooter and floor-spacer. But he is not a future star. To be fair, few players selected after Kispert in that draft look like future stars, either, although Quentin Grimes, Bones Hyland and Herb Jones — all drafted from No. 25 to No. 35 — have exceeded expectations, especially on the defensive end.
Of course, drafting retrospectively is 100 percent easier with the gift of hindsight. I’m not suggesting that drafting well is easy. I’m not claiming 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 elevated the supposedly tanking Indiana Pacers into playoff position before he suffered elbow and knee injuries on Jan. 11.
The Wizards should not be held accountable for not hitting on all of their recent draft picks. Even the teams that draft best do not have immaculate track records. No team is perfect.
But over the last decade, Washington has been nowhere close to even below average with its drafting. Washington has not had a major draft success since it selected John Wall first overall in 2010 and Bradley Beal third overall in 2012.
Otto Porter Jr., the third pick by the Wizards in 2013, turned out to be a solid rotation player. But it’s impossible to ignore that CJ McCollum went 10th and that two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th.
The high-profile misses — including the sixth pick in 2011, Jan Veselý, who lasted only 162 games in the NBA before he returned to Europe — are the primary reason for the franchise’s mediocrity. The Wizards have tended to struggle to lure quality free agents, but teams that struggle in free agency attempt to compensate by acing the draft.
And now the Wizards are in danger of having another Veselý-level whiff. Johnny Davis, the 10th pick last summer after he was the Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore at Wisconsin, not only has been unable to earn NBA minutes but also is producing unimpressive numbers in the G League. Davis is only 20 years old, and scouts correctly point out that he had a mediocre freshman season in college before he blossomed the following year. Still, the initial returns of Davis’ play are worrisome.
Hachimura has shown some promise. He has recorded four 30-point games as a pro, including on Saturday, which turned out to be his final game with the Wizards.
His development in Washington faced several significant hurdles. An injury interrupted his rookie season. Then, the pandemic broke up his rookie season and shortened the offseason heading into his second year. Last season, he missed Washington’s first 39 games on an excused absence to attend to a personal matter following his stint playing for Japan in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Wizards officials could not have been more supportive of him during that difficult time. In retrospect, however, those missed games slowed his growth.
You could make the argument that Hachimura still would be with the Wizards right now if the team hadn’t traded for Kyle Kuzma in 2021 in the massive deal that sent Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. Without Kuzma in the fold, Hachimura would have received more playing time and might not have wanted to be traded.
But at the same time, it would be difficult to make the case that the Wizards ever came close to developing Hachimura’s potential on the defensive end or coaxing him out of being a selfish player on the offensive end.
That’s on Hachimura, but it’s also on the Wizards.
Team officials would argue — correctly — that they still have a chance to make good on their 2019 first-round pick, even with Hachimura now gone. Nunn’s expiring contract could make it easier for the Wizards to re-sign Kuzma in July and build out their roster without going into the luxury tax. One or more of the incoming second-round picks could provide grist for a trade or trades down the line. A trade exception worth $6.3 million is a valuable roster-construction tool.
Wizards president and general manager Tommy Sheppard, who has led the franchise’s basketball operations department since mid-2019, has specialized in converting bad contracts or bad signings into positives.
He managed to trade John Wall’s supposedly untradable salary and a future protected first-round pick to Houston for Russell Westbrook.
During the offseason that followed, Sheppard flipped Westbrook’s massive salary in a creative, and massively complex, five-team trade that netted the Wizards a large number of rotation players on smaller contracts, including Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and also allowed them to complete a sign-and-trade for Spencer Dinwiddie.
When the Dinwiddie addition flamed out spectacularly, Sheppard found a way to package Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns to Dallas for Kristaps Porziņģis and a second-round pick. Porziņģis has played close to an All-Star level this season.
So it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Sheppard to find a creative use for Nunn, Nunn’s expiring contract, the incoming second-round picks or the trade exception.
But despite Sheppard’s creative trade gymnastics, the Wizards need to find ways to avoid operating from less-than-ideal positions, such as having the Wall contract on their books or Dinwiddie not meeting expectations.
It didn’t have to be this way, with the Wizards careening toward yet another mediocre season and remaining far away from contending for a conference title.
They needed to draft better, as the Hachimura trade once again demonstrated.
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(Top photo of Rui Hachimura and Dorian Finney-Smith: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)