NEW YORK (Kyodo) — Rui Hachimura became the first Japanese player selected in the opening round of the NBA draft when the Washington Wizards claimed him with the ninth pick June 20 in New York.
The 21-year-old Hachimura played three seasons at Gonzaga University before being drafted. He now will join a Washington team that had an injury-hit 2018-2019 season, missing the playoffs after logging a 32-50 win-loss record.
“It is crazy. It is unreal. It means a lot to me, my family and my whole country. I am so thankful,” said Hachimura on the stage after shaking NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s hand while wearing his new Wizards cap.
“First of all, I want to thank my junior high school coach, he pointed at me the first time I went to practice and (said) I’m going to the NBA. I believe in him, I trust him. My high school coach, trainer, my college coach, teammates, I want to thank everybody.”
As widely expected, Duke University freshman phenom Zion Williamson was taken with the first pick by the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Memphis Grizzlies selected Ja Morant second, the Murray State University star joining the team which gave an opportunity to Japan’s other current NBA player, Yuta Watanabe, last season.
Canadian RJ Barrett went to the New York Knicks third.
With the Washington Wizards, a team that had a forgettable past season due to star player John Wall suffering a major injury, Hachimura will have plenty of opportunities to grow into an impactful piece.
The Wizards only have four frontcourt players from last season’s team under contract, according to Basketball Reference. The injury-plagued eight-time NBA All-Star Dwight Howard and the once highly-touted Jabari Parker are locked in as well as the team’s 2018 draft pick Troy Brown, but Hachimura is confident his versatility will help him carve out a place.
“I can play both styles, defense and offense, I can impact the game at every position. I can get rebounds and push the ball, I can shoot and pass, I can help the team a lot,” he said at the post-draft press conference.
“First of all, I want to play in the playoffs and help the team. I want a championship, that’s the one thing I want to accomplish.”
Speaking to the media after the draft, the Wizards’ Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations, Tommy Sheppard, was full of praise for his team’s new player.
“He’s somebody we’ve watched for the last couple of years. He’s a late bloomer. We think he’s got the potential to be a tremendous two-way player,” Sheppard said.
“I think the potential for him to be several things that we need, defensively, offensively, the fact that he’s a late-bloomer … is really intriguing to us. And he’s a fantastic person.
“He’s ready to play next year,” Sheppard said. “I think he’ll be able to contribute right away.”
Hachimura is the second Japanese to be drafted into the NBA after Yasutaka Okayama, who was selected by the Golden State Warriors with the 171st pick in 1981 but never played in the league.
The 6-foot-7, 229-pound Hachimura went from a deep bench player to starter over his stay at Gonzaga, a college located in Spokane, Wash.
After a 2018-2019 season that saw his Zags reach the NCAA Tournament’s elite eight before being knocked out by eventual finalist Texas Tech, Hachimura was named a consensus first-team All-American, Julius Erving Award winner as the best small forward in the country and the West Coast Conference’s player of the year.
As a junior in his final year in Gonzaga, his stocks really began to rise, the young Japanese bumping his scoring from 11.6 points per game to 19.7 while marginally improving his shooting percentage to 59 percent despite taking five more shots per game than he did as a sophomore.
He also made strides from behind the arc, going from under 20 percent to over 41 percent from the 3-point line, albeit on just one attempt per game, showing he could potentially add a reliable shot from deep at some point in his professional career, a huge attribute in the NBA.
Despite it being considered a weakness, he bumped his rebounding from 4.7 per game to 6.5 in his final college season.
Hachimura also made some progress on his assist numbers, although many pre-draft assessments noted that his passing, court vision and general high-level understanding of the game is lacking.
His perceived basketball IQ shortcomings can perhaps be put down to him taking the game up at a late age, but they also impact his effectiveness on the defensive end of the court.
Despite being blessed with superior athleticism, a thick frame and long arms, his defensive instincts were criticized at times, something that may pose a problem in the NBA where defenses are complex and offenses ruthless.
And for Japanese fans worried that Hachimura’s newfound fame means he may forget the national team, they need not fret.
“Of course, I want to play for my country,” he said when asked by a Chinese reporter if he will play in the World Cup later this year. “Last year we qualified, that’s why I played for them.”
“Basketball is going up right now (in Japan), it is getting bigger and a lot of people are playing and watching basketball right now, it’s big right now.”
Japanese fans will also be happy to hear that the Wizards are all in on Hachimura playing for the national team at the World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as confirmed by Sheppard.
“The stuff he’s done in FIBA ball is really impressive. For Japan to qualify for the world championships, he’s the focal point,” the Wizards’ executive said.
“When the Olympics come in 2020, he’s going to be the focal point of that country and that basketball team. To be able to shoulder that load at his age, the maturity he has — I think that is going to bode well for him in the NBA.”
Hachimura’s supporters in Japan, including his junior high school coach Joji Sakamoto, welcomed the news of his draft selection.
Sakamoto, who taught Hachimura how to play basketball in his native Toyama Prefecture, said he had strongly believed the youngster, born to a Japanese mother and Beninese father, possessed the talent to reach the highest levels of the game. “I told him to visualize his dream, but now it will be a reality,” the 59-year-old Sakamoto said.
Japan’s education minister Masahiko Shibayama said Hachimura had given hope to a generation of young players in his home country.
“It’s really fantastic. By taking an active role in a league that is difficult for Japanese players to enter, he will give hope to many Japanese people,” Shibayama said.
Starting salaries for NBA draftees is based on the position they are picked, with Hachimura expected to earn in excess of $4 million in his rookie year.