Fast, strong, big, smooth, phenom, hope, slam dunker, highlight film.
The list goes on and on when you think of words and phrases to describe Japan’s hoopster Rui Hachimura.
You can probably now add “rock star” to the list.
On Friday night, the 20-year-old athletic forward made his debut on the top-flight team of the Japan men’s national squad in the first of a two-game exhibition series against South Korea at Ota City General Gymnasium.
Hachimura, a Gonzaga University player who is speculated to be an NBA draft pick as early as next year, drew bigger cheers from fans than other players in Japan’s 88-80 win.
Later this month, Japan will have its back against the wall going into its final two games in the first round of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers later. The Akatsuki Five, who have not been secured a host country spot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics from FIBA, are on the verge of being eliminated as they are 0-4 in in Group B.
In the first game against South Korea, Japan coach Julio Lamas sent Hachimura onto the court as a starter at power forward. Hachimura did his job well enough guarding South Korea’s big men and cleaning the boards, taking advantage of his 203-cm height and physical strength.
But some of the moves Hachimura showed were not what typical players at the position would make.
On a couple of occasions, Hachimura dribbled from the backcourt, instead of giving the ball to the point guard, and went all the way to the basket and scored on layups.
No other big men on the Japan squad, which is a provisional one at the moment, are able to do that and the fans were in awe when they saw those plays from Hachimura.
“Yes, it’s one of the things that I have confidence doing,” Hachimrua said of his own coast-to-coast plays after the game.
One of the concerns for him had been conditioning, because he wrapped up his sophomore season for the Zags in mid-March, when the West Coast Conference team lost in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. The majority of the players on the national squad had played until more recently competing in the B. League.
“It’s been a while for me to play in an actual game, but I think I was able to move better than I thought,” Hachimura said. “I’d practiced with my teammates (after the season was over), training hard.”
After all, Hachimura did what fans expected him to do.. He was the team’s second-leading scorer (17 points) behind Nick Fazekas, who recently became a naturalized citizen and made his debut for Japan as well. The Toyama native also racked up seven rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks, in just under 26 minutes.
The 32-year-old Fazekas, the 2016-17 B. League MVP, said that he felt good alongside someone with the type of talent that Hachimura has. He added that he was pleased that Hachimura “catches every pass I throw to him” and he “can finish” his shots.
“It was a lot of fun to play with him,” the 210-cm Fazekas said. “A lot of fun to be with him out there.”
Japan played its previous four contests in the World Cup qualifiers without Hachimura and Fazekas. Lamas said that while he was happy to have the two on his squad this time, he thinks that the results for those past games would’ve been “completely” different had they been on board.
The Argentine bench boss insisted that the addition of Hachimura and Fazekas have given his team more options and flexibility, adding that he would continue to use the two bigs at the same time on the floor.
“But I’m not going to be attached to (the idea of using them simultaneously) too much,” Lamas said. “Although we used him at the 4 position, Rui can play as a 3. Nick can play both at 4 and 5. So we are going to see what we can do rotating those guys.”
The Japan Basketball Association created an ad-like poster with a big picture of Hachimura and is using it as an advertisement for the South Korea series and the World Cup qualifiers. The catchphrase for it is “‘The Hope’ is returning’.” At the Ota gym, too, a gigantic version of the poster was posted outside of the arena.
There is no doubt that Hachimura is now a big attraction for fans. And it seems that the JBA is putting too much pressure on the shoulders of the 20-year-old.
But Hachimura does not dwell on this, however.
“I mean, it’s something they do outside (of the team),” said Hachimura, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds for Gonzaga this past season. “I’m just one of the players on this team and I’m happy that I’m part of it, being able to compete with them.”
Japan will play its second and final exhibition against South Korea at Sendai’s Xebio Arena on Sunday.
Japan will then take on unbeaten Australia at Chiba Port Arena on June 29 and fly to Taiwan to compete in its final first-round game of the Asian qualifiers on July 2.