George David, the senior vice president of basketball operations at Wasserman, describes himself as being blown away after seeing the impact of NBA players Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe in their native Japan.
The executive of one of the biggest sports agencies in the world said that he was taken aback to see Hachimura being surrounded by dozens of reporters — representing both Japanese and U.S. outlets — during the NBA’s All-Star weekend in Chicago in February. The Washington Wizards rookie forward competed in the Rising Stars game.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” David told the Japan Times on Friday during an online interview. “He had the largest media contingency anywhere.
“Even during the season, I believe there was one person from every Japanese outlet that followed and that’s incredible.”
David also recalled seeing “45 to 50” fans travel from Japan to see Watanabe, a two-way signing for the Memphis Grizzlies who became the NBA’s second Japanese player during the 2018-19 season, play in a G League game as a member of the Memphis Hustle.
“I think that was one of the first indications for us that this is a tip of the iceberg for the fans in Japan being so excited,” David said.
While Hachimura and Watanabe continue to develop as players, the two have established major appeal as professional athletes, drawing multiple sponsorships. That is especially the case with Hachimura, who is now endorsed by Nissin, SoftBank, Casio, NEC and Taisho Pharmaceutical among others. The 203-cm forward is also the first Japanese player to be endorsed by Michael Jordan’s famous brand.
“Rui and Yuta, through their endorsements and through their visibility, have created a bond for us, Wasserman, that we could’ve never envisioned to have in Japan,” David said. “To have a bond at this level, that’s really in its infancy stage of growth. Rui’s in his rookie season and Yuta is at the end of his second year. For us to create the bond in Japan, we take tremendous pride in (it).”
David, a former assistant general manager for the Detroit Pistons, said that his agency is happy to be part of the process of helping its clients athletes establish their own brand. He noted the difficulty of such work on the team side because of the number of responsibilities involving the team, players, coaches, staff and fans.
“On this side, your focus is a singular person, a singular client,” said David, who joined Wasserman in 2015. The Los Angeles-based company boasts some of the NBA’s premier stars including Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Derrick Rose and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
David is aware that a growing number of Japanese players are currently playing college ball in the United States and younger players are aiming to do the same in order to follow the route Hachmura and Watanabe took.
“I think players like Rui and Yuta have given inspiration to many Japanese high school players to follow in their footsteps,” David said. “And I think that they’ve been very inspiring to show that this is a path that’s available to them. And again, for us as an agency, that’s something that for us to be working with those players is very gratifying. It really is.”
Meanwhile, David has his eye on Japan’s B. League and its continuing growth as a professional circuit. In fact, he was scheduled to make his third trip there this summer, which ended up being called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wasserman has deepened its ties with the league since its inception in 2016.
According to David, Wasserman has had seven clients signed with Japanese clubs, including guard Diante Garrett, who amused the local fans with his flashy moves for the Alvark Tokyo in the league’s inaugural 2016-17 campaign.
The Japanese league has long called on its imports for size and power near the basket, but those demands are changing in part due to some changes to how import players are handled. One of the biggest new rules going in the 2020-21 season, which will be the fifth year for the B. League, will be that a team can register up to three imports for a game, up from two last year — although only two will be allowed on the floor at any time, just as before.
The change allows teams to have flexibility in their signing and usage of imports. David stressed that the league did a good job of making the changes and that they were in “the best interest of the fans.”
“One of the things that when I met the league office, they were concerned that if they did that, they would have a downturn effect on the Japanese players,” he said. “And they haven’t. I think, if anything, it’s benefited many Japanese players because it’s increased their competition level and it’s forced many of them to improve.”
David said that as the league continues to grow both economically and in terms of quality of the game, it will open the door for more high-quality players, including his company’s clients, to come to Japan. And he thinks that the B. League is reaching its targets on both.
“I think one of the things that I know a lot of American players are (beginning) to value more and more and more about the league in Japan, is that it’s extremely well-organized and it’s extremely well-run.”
David continued: “That’s something that, aside from the NBA, we take that for granted with a lot of leagues throughout the world. And I think that’s one of the things we thought that the league in Japan has done a sensational job (with), is (that) they are very organized, very on-point, including many of the teams. And that’s something that American and import players (have) come to value.”