Hachimura set to make NBA history for Japan

Rui Hachimura on cloud nine after being picked No. 9 by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the 2019 NBA draft last Thursday.
Rui Hachimura on cloud nine after being picked No. 9 by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the 2019 NBA draft last Thursday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK • By the time Rui Hachimura came to Gonzaga University for an official visit in October 2015, he had already been on the cover of Slam Magazine - the basketball and hip-hop culture bible - back home in Japan.

The son of a Japanese mother and a father from the West African nation of Benin, he became the first Japanese player ever selected in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft last Thursday at Barclays Centre in New York, where he went No. 9 overall to the Washington Wizards.

The moment is not lost on the 2.05m Hachimura, who spent three seasons in relative anonymity at Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.

Though he held his own media day for Japanese reporters when he was at Gonzaga, the draft is, in effect, his American debut.

The power forward said a junior high school coach in Japan once told him this moment would come.

"It's been crazy," Hachimura told reporters in New York last Wednesday. "I can't even believe that when I started playing basketball, the coach pointed at me and he said, 'You're going NBA'. And somehow, I was stupid, and I believed him.

"And I'm really here now. It's crazy, actually."

This past season, Hachimura averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Zags, who breezed to another regular-season conference title and then lost to Texas Tech in their Elite Eight contest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Hachimura had 22 points and six rebounds in that game.

He now looks up to NBA stars like Kawhi Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to their first championship last week, and Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. "I like to watch them a lot - how they play, how they use their bodies," Hachimura said.

Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, recently described Hachimura as "really strong and very, very skilled". "He's a terrific pull-up jump shooter," Bilas said on the ESPN morning show Get Up! last Wednesday.

"I think Hachimura has got a very high ceiling. I rank him 11th overall in this draft among prospects. He's a very, very talented player."

Tommy Lloyd, an assistant at Gonzaga, said he sensed that kind of ceiling was possible the first time he saw Hachimura play for Japan at the 2014 Fiba Under-17 World Championship in the United Arab Emirates.

His team were a non-factor, but Hachimura led the tournament in scoring, averaging 22.1 points a game.

"At the time, he was like 6-6 (2m), and he looked like he still hadn't physically developed yet," Lloyd said. "He was strong, but it still looked like there was a lot of upside. And you just thought, 'Man, if we could take this package and he physically matures a little bit, we could really have something'."

Now that Hachimura is about to make NBA history for Japan, he expressed pride at being a role model for biracial children - he describes himself as "black-anese" - who he said often experienced discrimination in Japan.

"There are a lot of black and half-Japanese, they play sports and they are actually good at it," Hachimura said. "So I think it's going to be great for them to see this moment."

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans made Duke University standout Zion Williamson the No. 1 selection in the entry draft.

Williamson beat Murray State's Ja Morant as the top overall pick. Guard Morant went second to the Memphis Grizzlies.

The New York Knicks made Canadian forward R.J. Barrett the third pick in the annual selection of college players that helps NBA teams replenish their talent pools.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2019, with the headline 'Hachimura set to make NBA history for Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe