Basketball / NBA

Rui Hachimura excites draft experts

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Mark your calendars.

June 20 is the day that officially puts Japan on the global basketball map like never before.

The reason?

The 2019 NBA Draft will forever change Rui Hachimura’s life and, possibly, perceptions about Japanese basketball players.

The dynamic former Gonzaga University forward appears to be a sure-shot first-round selection.

The draft will be held in New York City at Barclays Center.

The draft used to be a real crapshoot. Case in point: The Golden State Warriors selected Yasutaka Okayama, a 230-cm former center, in the eighth round (171st overall pick) in the 1981 draft. He never played in the NBA. Which was the case for the overwhelming majority latter-round picks that year, especially from the fifth round through 10th. Of the players chosen from No. 93 (first pick in fifth round) to 223 (final pick in the 10th), only seven of them ever appeared in an NBA regular-season game.

Okayama, for one, was stunned that he was drafted.

“It totally came out of the blue,” Okayama told The Japan Times’ Kaz Nagatsuka in a 2015 interview. “A writer at a sports paper called and told me that I was drafted. That’s how I found out.”

Since 1989, there have only been two rounds in the annual draft. The globalization of the game has only contributed to the cutthroat competition (only 60 overall draft positions exist nowadays).

In his latest mock draft, Basketball Hall of Fame scribe Sam Smith, a former Japan Times contributor, has Hachimura penciled in going to the Boston Celtics with the 14th overall pick.

NBAdraft.net also made that prediction. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating on the internet that the Minnesota Timberwolves will use their No. 11 pick to snatch Hachimura after “promising” to do so, according to Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders.

Smith’s prognostications are posted on Bulls.com, where he also provided these insights on Hachimura: “More skilled than his Gonzaga teammate (Brandon) Clarke, but not quite the athlete. Well, if you can’t get Anthony Davis. … He’d be a value pick at the bottom of the lottery as a skilled big man who actually would seem to fit well with their patterned play once Kyrie (Irving) stops dribbling.”

Carl Berman, managing partner of NetScouts Basketball, an international recruiting service, agrees with Smith’s basic prediction for the 203-cm Hachimura.

“I see him in the 12-18 range at this point,” Berman told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“There is a lot to like with his physical profile and ability to play both forward positions. He also has good potential moving forward as he hasn’t been playing against top competition long.

“He needs to improve general court awareness/game management, defense and get more consistent shooting especially from further out. There’s a lot to like especially down the line.”

Former NBA swingman Tyrone Nesby, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards during his NBA career (1999-2002), said he’s impressed with Hachimura’s skill set.

Now a head coach at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pennsylvania, Nesby elaborated on Hachimura’s NBA potential in an interview.

Among Hachimura’s chief strengths, Nesby noted the following: “He uses both his left and right hand very well by the basket. He can shoot the ball and is a great shot blocker.”

What are Hachimura’s weaknesses at this stage of his career?

“(He needs) to work more on his ball handling,” Nesby, a former UNLV player who averaged 13.3 points in his second NBA season, said. “He needs to continue getting stronger.”

Indeed, astute basketball observers spanning the globe recognize that the impact of Hachimura’s potential as a breakthrough star for Japan can’t be overstated.

What’s more, potential longevity in the globe’s top league would be a major boost for the sport here, providing increased media coverage and sponsorship opportunities for Hachimura.

For example, he’s featured on cover of the July/August issue of GQ Japan.

“You need someone like him to be successful in basketball,” Nesby said. “It will bring more light to your country.”

Japan national team big man Nick Fazekas, who plays for the B. League’s Kawasaki Brave Thunders, commented on Hachimura’s aspirations in a recent interview with Forbes.

“He says he wants to be the face of Japanese basketball, and I think he kind of already is,” Fazekas told Forbes. “And obviously after June when he gets drafted I think it’s just going to catapult it even more to where he is the face of (basketball) here.”

Bleacher Report’s David Gardner, who penned a feature on Hachimura during the 2018-19 season, closely follows the college basketball scene. He mentioned that people say Hachimura reminds them of Wilson Chandler, but he says the Toyama native reminds him of Boris Diaw.

“He’s got a great physical profile for a modern power forward,” Gardner told The Japan Times.

“He is a really powerful athlete with a nice shooting touch, and he’s really effective from inside 15 feet (4.5 meters). He’s a great straight-line driver, and he finishes through contact well and has a knack for drawing fouls.”

Hachimura increased his scoring average from 2.6 points per game as a freshman in 2017-18 to 11.6 as a sophomore to 19.7 this past season, when he was named to The Associated Press All-America Second Team.

Beyond his impressive basketball skills, Hachimura, whose father is from Benin, has stated many times that he hopes to be a role model, especially for mixed raced Japanese children, Gardner pointed out.