Just listening to how he talks and reacts, he just seems the same kid that we came to know from his high school days in Japan.
But this past year has surely made Rui Hachimura a better basketball player.
The 19-year-old phenom has returned to Japan for the first time since he left to play for the Gonzaga University Bulldogs last May.
Hachimura, who flew back from the United States on Tuesday, is on the provisional roster for the national Under-19 team, which has begun practicing for this summer’s FIBA Under-19 World Cup.
In his freshman year, Hachimura and Gonzaga had a very successful season. The West Coast Conference team finished with a 34-1 record and made a surprising run in the NCAA Tournament this spring. The Zags made their first Final Four appearance and finished as runnerup as they fell to North Carolina in the championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium early last month.
“Playing for a team that went to the championship game, I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” Hachimura said at a news conference before he began working with the national squad at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Friday. “I didn’t really get to play against bigger players in Japan, but there’s a lot of those (in the U.S.).”
The Toyama native, who was born to a Japanese mother and a Beninese father, is the first Japanese player to play in the NCAA Tournament. He played in three games and scored one 3-pointer in the tourney.
Asked how he would compare one of the biggest sporting events in the States, which is dubbed “March Madness,” with the Koshien high school baseball tournaments, Hachimura said, “It’s far greater than Koshien. It’s like a tournament every American watches, whether you know basketball or not. Gonzaga hadn’t gone to the Final Four but did so this time, and anywhere we’ve gone, people talked to us once they knew we were from Gonzaga. I’ve had a lot of great experiences there.”
Japan Basketball Association’s technical director Tomoya Higashino joked that he was a little nervous sitting right next to Hachimura at the news conference.
“He’s a player on the team that went to the Final Four and championship game,” Higashino said. “I’ve been a basketball coach for 20 years, but I used to not think that we would have someone like that.
“(Hachimura) is making history for Japanese basketball, and we believe he will continue to do so.”
Meanwhile, Hachimura, a 202-cm versatile forward, saw the majority of his action off the bench during the 2016-17 campaign. He averaged 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds playing 4.6 minutes per game in the regular season.
Hachimura, who was nearly always on the floor when leading Sendai’s Meisei High School to a three-peat at the annual Winter Cup, the biggest high school tournament in this country, said that he is a bit worried that he may have to regain his knack for the game so he can help the team compete at the Under-19 World Cup.
“After the Winter Cup (in 2015), we played at the All-Japan (Championship, a single-elimination all-category invitational tournament),” Hachimura said. “So it’s been two years (since I fully played in a game). So I have a few worries about my intuition for the game.”
At the same time, Hachimura hopes to display the more mature version of himself at the under-19 tournament, which will be held between July 1-9 in Cairo with 16 nations competing. Japan is in Group B for the group stage with Canada, Spain and Mali.
“My athleticism is something I can capitalize on,” he said. “And I’ve got long arms and can move quicker for my height. I’m not particularly standing out in the States, but hopefully I can take advantage of the strengths that I have.”