Since his selection in the first round of last summer's NBA draft and successful first season in the league, Rui Hachimura has undoubtedly become the biggest star in Japanese basketball.
The next question for the 22-year-old: How far can the Washington Wizards forward progress as a global star and brand in the NBA?
The Japan Times spoke to a pair of veteran local reporters, David Aldridge of The Athletic and Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington, about their perceptions of Hachimura and his potential value going forward.
Hughes thinks that Hachimura, who averaged 13.4 points and six rebounds starting in all 41 games he has played in the 2019-20 campaign, “has exceeded expectations as a rookie and is likely to earn All-Rookie honors whenever the season is over.
“(Hachimura) adapted very quickly to the NBA level, particularly on offense, and has been a much more consistent scorer than most players with his experience are,” Hughes told The Japan Times via email. “I think he has fit well with the team and has given them a long-team solution at the forward position. The Wizards appear to have another building block to move forward with. He is now one of the most important pieces of the team’s future.”
Added Aldridge, also via email, “Rui is perceived (by the American media) as a very diligent, hard worker, who has good potential to be a very productive player in the NBA.”
Hachimura has often been compared with Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers for his versatile game, and some fans have already speculated about how high the rookie's ceiling is.
Aldridge, who is also known as a former television reporter for ESPN and Turner Sports, insisted that there are “very few players in the NBA who are true ‘superstars.’” He added that he defines a superstar as someone who displays his ability to make his team a championship contender “on a consistent, nightly basis.”
“I don’t think the U.S. media believes Rui to be that kind of player,” Aldridge said. “But he is viewed as someone who can, and should, start and play for many years on good teams.”
While it could be considered unfair to include a rookie like Hachimura and someone like Leonard, who has led the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors to the NBA titles, in the same sentence, Aldridge suggested that the Japanese player could be measured with Spurs center/forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
“He always had the great post-up game down low and he’s gotten much better later in his career shooting 3s,” Aldridge said of Aldridge, who’s made 38.9 percent of his 3-points shots this season. “LaMarcus is bigger than Rui, but they have similar kinds of offensive games, to me.”
Hachimura, a Toyama native, is still relatively new to the country and the English language. Some American reporters may have faced some difficulties in communicating with the Akatsuki Five star, who forwent his senior season at Gonzaga University to enter the draft.
Aldridge said that while Hachimura hasn't necessarily brought anything new to the league as a player, off the court is “clearly different” because of the unprecedented interest he has drawn from Japanese media.
Aldridge described the Wizards' attempts to capitalize on Hachimura in order to develop an international fan base, especially in Asia, as “similar to what the (Houston) Rockets did in China with Yao (Ming).”
The Wizards have hired a Japanese reporter and staff to create Japanese-language content on social media and other platforms, including podcasts.
“The number of international media that follow him and report mostly on what he does individually as opposed to the Wizards as a team is certainly new for the Wizards,” Aldridge said. “That is something that has been associated with baseball players like Ichiro and (Shohei) Ohtani here in the States, not basketball players.”
Hachimura has publicly said that he is not a big fan of dealing with the media, something he has had to endure since he was a national star at Meisei High School. Hughes sees that continuing in the player's relationship with American media.
“You can tell sometimes he just wants to be left alone, which is fine,” Hughes said. “I have found he is a bit more open in small groups rather than in big crowds, which is common for pro athletes.”
Hachimura has missed 23 games after he was accidentally kicked in his groin by his teammate Isaac Bong during a December contest. Hughes recalled how the Japanese reacted when he returned to the team in February.
“I thought it was cool how he could joke about how he got injured and Isaac Bonga’s role in it all,” Hughes said.