When Rui Hachimura gets picked in the 2019 NBA Draft, he will have bridged both sides of the Pacific.
June 20, 2019, is when Hachimura will become the first-ever homegrown Japanese drafted in the NBA. It will truly be a landmark achievement, unprecedented in the annals of Japanese basketball.
There have been NBA players of Japanese descent in the past, of course: Like Rex Walters, who played 7 NBA seasons; and Wataru Misaka, who was the first-ever non-Caucasian professional basketball player, beginning his career in 1947 with the New York Knicks. Another is JR Henderson, who was drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998, played one season in the Association and became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2007, changing his name to JR Sakuragi.
More recently, two Yutas—Yuta Tabuse and Yuta Watanabe—have seen NBA action, with Tabuse playing 4 games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-2005 regular season and Watanabe logging 15 contests for the Memphis Grizzlies this past season despite going undrafted last year.
Those players have laid the groundwork for someone like Hachimura to bask in the spotlight and become the nouveau face of Japanese basketball all over the globe.
His journey to stardom began, of course, in Japan, where, as a bright-eyed 15-year-old, the then 6’6″ native of Toyama Prefecture was selected to be part of Japan’s U16 national team. He would see action in the 2013 FIBA U16 Asia Championship in Tehran, Iran. Hachimura was one of two half-black Japanese players on the team, (the other being 6’4 Daniel Nnanna), and he was teamed up with some of the country’s brightest young stars like Hayato Maki and Gen Hiraiwa.
It was no question, however, which player stood out and turned heads at the biennial youth competition.
Hachimura, with his length, athleticism, explosiveness and basketball IQ carried Japan on his shoulders, helping the squad to a third-place finish and to successfully qualify for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Cup in Dubai, UAE. Hachimura was a double-double machine for Japan at the U16 level, putting up around 23 points, 13 rebounds, 1 steal, and 3 blocks per game.
At the U17 World Cup the following year, Hachimura announced himself to the world, leading Japan with 22.6 points per game. More importantly, he showed that he could compete with the best young talents of more established nations, even scoring 25 points against a stacked Team USA, which featured future NBA talents Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and Terrance Ferguson, among others.
No less than Hachimura’s then youth team head coach, Torsten Loibl was all praise for the former’s performance at the world level.
“(Rui) is probably one of the only prospects we have in Japan right now,” Loibl told FIBA. “He has everything that a basketball player needs. He’s athletic, he has size, he is smart, has a high basketball IQ and is a hard-working kid.”
That event is where the international scouts saw that this kid could be special. Not surprisingly, offers came in for the wide-eyed teenager to test the waters and move Stateside after finishing high school in Japan.
Enter the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who had a penchant for anchoring their play on international standouts and who would put their trust in a young half-Japanese, half-Beninese kid who hardly spoke English the first time he visited the university at Spokane, Washington.
As can be expected, Hachimura had a slow transition from the Far East to the West Coast. He had to learn the language and adjust to much more athletic competition. He had to play within a system instead of having a system predicated on his individual production.
“His major problem is he doesn’t get much competition in Japan. In Japan, he’s a superstar and is dominating,” added Loibl. “He’s awesome at taking instruction, and that’s why I think he can be a big prospect. You don’t find these kids very often—who work so hard, follow instruction, almost to a fault. It’s hard to find that talent and that unique character. That’s what makes him special.”
And so Hachimura toiled for head coach Mark Few at Gonzaga, watching from the bench more than playing his first year. After paying his dues, the now 6’8″ hybrid forward eventually came into his own.
This past season—his final for Gonzaga—the 21-year-old was phenomenal, averaging 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 59.1 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. He led the Zags in pivotal wins over ballyhooed programs like Arizona, Baylor, Florida State and even Duke. By March Madness’s end, they reached the Elite Eight for the third time in five years.
Coach Few recalls with pride how far Hachimura has come, and only wishes the best as his prized forward reaches for his NBA dream.
“There is not exactly a wide, paved road of high-level McDonald’s All Americans coming from Japan, but he’s a different cat,” Few told The Undefeated. “It was a challenge in the beginning. I kept telling the staff that he is retaining about 10 percent of the stuff that we are saying. The following year we ramped up to 50-60 percent. Now, he knows exactly what we are saying all of the time.”
Hachimura himself remembers those early struggles and how homesick he was. But he also hasn’t forgotten the drive it took to get where he is now, which is on the cusp of making it to the biggest stage of professional basketball.
“It’s different. Here and Japan are, like, the opposite things,” Hachimura told The Undefeated. “Maybe I was thinking about going home a little bit, but I couldn’t quit. I had a bigger goal. I am playing for my national team too. I couldn’t do it.”
Speaking of the national team, Hachimura, despite his tender age, has become the de facto go-to-guy for the squad known in Japan as the Akatsuki Five.
During the recently concluded Asian Qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Japan was off to a very slow start, losing their first four games. But when Hachimura finally put his country’s kit on, they instead became invincible, rattling off eight wins in a row (including a shocker over powerhouse Australia) to crash the World Cup party in China.
As expected, Hachimura was front and center throughout the national team’s captivating win streak, putting up around 22 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals per game.
He’s gone from being a rising star to the face of Japanese basketball and isn’t shying away from the spotlight one bit.
“Basketball’s getting bigger in Japan and I want to be the guy, the face of it,” he told FIBA. “I’m so excited about it. I want to be the guy who can be the whole well-rounded athlete for Japan. People expect me to be great, but it’s not a big deal for me. I just have to do whatever I can on the basketball court, and the rest will take care of itself.”
As Ed Odeven from The Japan Times compiled, many scouts and pundits now see Hachimura going in the 10-25 range on draft night. There are a few concerns about his athleticism, size and position, but those are weighed against his clearly productive skills and feel for the game.
Hachimura remembers one particular conversation he had way back in his junior high school days when his coach told him something he’d never forget.
“My junior high (school) coach, the first time I practiced, he told me to my face, ‘You’re going to the NBA,'” he recalled. “I was young, I was stupid, so I believed him: ‘Yeah, I’m going to the NBA!'”
Well, guess what. Mark your calendars. Set your alarms.
June 20, 2019, at the Barclays Center, in New York City: Rui Hachimura will be selected in the NBA Draft.
One junior high school coach from Toyama, Japan will see his prophetic words become fact.
One wide-eyed young man’s dreams will become reality.
And one nation’s basketball hopes will have found their hero.
Enzo Flojo is one of Manila’s top basketball bloggers and always has basketball on his mind. He is the only Asian columnist on FIBA.basketball, maintains a semi-weekly column on the Daily Tribune broadsheet, and also works as a TV basketball analyst for the Philippines’ top sports channel, ABS-CBN S+A.