Basketball / NBA

Rui Hachimura makes history as first-round NBA draft choice by the Washington Wizards

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Rui Hachimura made history on Thursday night in New York.

Half a world away, the upbeat news provided a positive buzz throughout Hachimura’s homeland on Friday morning. At 9:32 a.m., Hachimura’s immediate future in basketball was announced to a global audience.

The 21-year-old Gonzaga University forward became the first Japanese basketball player to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, with the Washington Wizards choosing Hachimura with the ninth pick. The team was 32-50 and missed the playoffs last season. The Wizards’ lone NBA title came in 1978 when they beat the SuperSonics in seven games.

Speaking to ESPN reporter Maria Taylor after donning his new Wizards cap and shaking NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand, Hachimura exuded joy.

“It’s crazy. It’s unreal. It means a lot to me, my family and my country. … I’m just thankful,” said a beaming Hachimura, who donned a bright multi-colored suit for the once-in-a-lifetime festivities. He wore a pin of the Japanese flag on his suit jacket.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver poses with Rui Hachimura after the Washington Wizards selected him as the ninth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night in New York. | AP
NBA commissioner Adam Silver poses with Rui Hachimura after the Washington Wizards selected him as the ninth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night in New York. | AP

Hachimura thanked his coaches, starting with his first hoop mentor, Joji Sakamoto, his coach at Okuda Junior High School, who boldly told Hachimura on the first day he attended team practice that he would be a future NBA player. “And I believed in him and I trusted him,” Hachimura said, repeating a story he said before the draft that’s now been transmitted around the world. He also thanked his high school coach (Hisao Sato) and trainer, all of his high school and college teammates and longtime Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

“I want to thank everybody,” he stated.

Then he delivered a short message in Japanese: “Minna-san, yarimashita. Nihon-jin hatsu. NBA desu,” he declared.

“What did you say?” Taylor asked.

“I said I’m the first guy in the NBA that got drafted (from Japan),” he replied, referring to the first round.

Asked by a reporter to describe his style of play and what impact he thinks he can make for the Wizards, Hachimura responded by saying: “I think I can play defense. Both sides, defense and offense. I think I can impact the game. I can get rebounds and push the ball. I can shoot. I can pass. I think I can help the team a lot.”

In three seasons at Gonzaga, the Toyama native impressed basketball talent evaluators and fans with his explosive athleticism, including highlight-reel dunks, speed and strength. Now, he’s ready to take his game to the next level.

As a freshman, he saw limited court time for the NCAA title runner-ups in the 2017-18 campaign before securing his place in the regular rotation the next season as the sixth man.

This past season, the Bulldogs knocked off the then-No. 1 Duke University Blue Devils in late November in the Maui Invitational final, while Hachimura received tourney MVP honors. Other prestigious accolades followed, including being named West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors, selected to The Associated Press All-America Second Team and winning the Julius Erving Award, which recognizes the NCAA’s top small forward.

Hachimura was consistently tabbed a potential first-round pick throughout his junior season, when he averaged 19.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks in 37 games.

CBS Sports basketball analyst Gary Parrish, commenting after the pick was made, insisted that the Wizards made a sensible decision.

“There’s no obvious selection here at No. 9, but Hachimura is a fine choice,” Parrish wrote on CBSsports.com. “He’s got a big wingspan and a good jumper, and he fits as a stretch four. The fact that he’s only played basketball for a few years and keeps improving is a really good sign, even if there were better talent plays here.”

Several hours before the draft commenced, The Japan Times spoke to Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who was instrumental in Hachimura’s decision to attend the school in Spokane, Washington. Lloyd recruited Hachimura after seeing the then-schoolboy’s natural talents on display while watching video footage of the 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Dubai.

“It’s been a truly amazing process,” Lloyd said by phone from New York. “When you really step back and look from far above like how far he’s come. Obviously, when I first saw Rui, we thought that this was a kid that had a lot of potential. Potential’s a funny word. A lot of kids never are really able to live up to it, and Rui was such a diligent worker, had such a great attitude.

“He’s really come as far as any player I’ve ever been around in the three years he’s been with us, which was remarkable,” added Lloyd, who joined the Gonzaga coaching staff in 2001.

A small group of supporters from the Gonzaga athletics department traveled to New York for the draft: Lloyd, fellow assistant coach Brian Michaelson, Few and former Gonzaga coordinator of basketball analytics and video operations Riccardo Fois, who now works for the Phoenix Suns as a development coach.

Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura, a native of Toyama Prefecture, was selected by the Washington Wizards as the ninth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night in New York. KYODO
Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura, a native of Toyama Prefecture, was selected by the Washington Wizards as the ninth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft on Thursday night in New York. KYODO

Lloyd, his wife and three children and Hachimura’s family had dinner on Wednesday night at The Lobster Club on East 53rd Street in New York City. Hachimura’s mother Makiko, father Zakari, maternal uncle, maternal grandmother, younger brother Allen and one of his sisters went to dinner with Rui, enjoying sushi.

“Everybody was just relaxing and enjoying the moment,” Lloyd said, citing the fact that giving advice to the future NBA player was not a part of the meal.

During the NBA Draft media day session on Wednesday, Lloyd said he was impressed with how Hachimura handled all of the media attention.

“I think yesterday Rui had the largest media contingent here for all the draft prospects,” Lloyd said late Thursday morning, estimating over 60 Japanese media members.

Hachimura, who idolized Carmelo Anthony as a kid, led Meisei High School to an All-Japan High School Tournament three-peat in the annual December tournament in 2013, 2014 and ’15, providing 34 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks in his third title finale for the Miyagi Prefecture-based school.

Decades ago, an unknown Japanese giant had his name called in the draft.

The Golden State Warriors made the 230-cm Yasutaka Okayama the 171st overall pick in the eighth round in the 1981 Draft. He never appeared in an NBA game. The draft was several rounds longer in those days, and most latter-round picks were considered long shots at best to ever play in the NBA. (The draft has been two rounds since 1989.)

Okayama’s career included time with the Sumitomo Metal squad in the JBL. He also suited up for the Japan national team for eight years, making his debut in 1979.

In this era of globalization, players from all corners of the globe have made it to the NBA. The 2018-19 NBA season opened with 108 international players from 42 countries and territories.

In 2004, Yuta Tabuse, an undrafted point guard (BYU-Hawaii, 2001-02), appeared in four regular-season games for the Phoenix Suns, becoming the first Japanese to do so. Since then, the bulk of his pro career has been in Japan, where he remains a revered figure in hoop circles.

In 2018, Yuta Watanabe, who had a successful four-year career at George Washington University, including the Atlantic-10 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior, made his debut for the Memphis Grizzlies. He signed a free-agent deal with Memphis after a productive stint with the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA Summer League in July. Watanabe’s NBA contract was a two-way deal, and per league rules he spent most of the seasons with the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle. The 206-cm Watanabe, who hails from Kagawa Prefecture, appeared in 15 NBA games (2.6 points, 2.1 rebounds) and 33 G League contests (14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists).

Although Gonzaga, a private Roman Catholic university, competes in relative obscurity in the mid-major West Coast Conference, the Bulldogs have enjoyed sustained excellence and national prominence under Few, a brilliant bench boss. In his 20 seasons at the helm, the Zags have appeared in the NCAA Men’s Tournament every year. He owns a 568-122 overall record at the school through the 2018-19 campaign.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and point guard John Stockton, who teamed up with Karl Malone on the Utah Jazz to form a potent duo in the 1980s and ’90s, was the first Gonzaga player to be drafted by an NBA team. In 1984, Utah made Stockton the 16th overall pick.

Entering this week, six Bulldogs have been drafted in the first round in the 21st century: Dan Dickau (2002, 28th overall), Adam Morrison (2006, No. 3), Kelly Olynyk (2013, No. 13), Austin Daye (2009, No. 15), Domantas Sabonis (2016, No. 11) and Zach Collins (2017, No. 10).

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has led the team for three seasons after a long stint (2008-15) as the Oklahoma City Thunder bench boss.

The Wizards won a division title in Brooks’ first season at the helm. The franchise entered the NBA in 1961, and the league had nine teams that season. At the time, the team was known as the Chicago Packers, then changed its named to the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962. The franchise became the Baltimore Bullets in 1963, the Capital Bullets in 1973 before switching its name to the Washington Bullets in 1974. Four years later, the Bullets, led by coach Dick Motta and star center Wes Unseld, captured their aforementioned lone NBA championship.

In 1997, Washington adopted its present team moniker. Then-owner Abe Pollin decided to change the team’s nickname, citing street violence.

“Unfortunately, far too often these days ‘bullets’ in the news does not have anything to do with basketball,” Pollin said in 1995. “I realized we should consider changing our name.”

This announcement was made a few days after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of Pollin’s close friends, was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, in Tel Aviv.

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