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Just a little over a minute into Japan’s game against Belgium on Friday, Rui Hachimura nailed his first basket of the evening from beyond the arc — as if it was an afterthought.

But it was actually his first game since his 2020-21 NBA season ended in a playoff series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in early June. Despite the break from action, Hachimura made it look easy, showing no signs of being rusty.

After all, the 23-year-old Washington Wizards forward racked up a game-high 24 points, despite playing less than 19 minutes, during the national team’s 87-59 win over Belgium in a warm-up contest for the Tokyo Olympics.

“I didn’t feel too bad about my game. My shooting touch wasn’t too bad either,” Hachimura said of his performance before a crowd of 2,000-plus at Saiden Chemical Arena in the city of Saitama.

On Sunday, the Akatsuki Five faced world No. 7 France and, once again, Hachimura delivered as the team’s key player, scoring 19 — another game high — on the way to an 81-75 win over the European powerhouse for Japan’s second consecutive exhibition victory.

The heroics proved that Hachimura is an indispensable and special talent for Japan and its upcoming challenge at the Summer Games.

Japan had three warm-up games in Okinawa against Hungary, Belgium and Finland between July 7 and July 11, and went 1-2 without Hachimura and Yudai Baba, who was part of the Melbourne United team that won the championship in Australia’s NBL this past season.

The provisional national team had kicked off its training in late May, and the 12-man Olympic roster was revealed on July 5. Yet Hachimura and Baba finally joined the team early last week to compete in Japan’s final two pre-Olympic matches in Saitama.

Rui Hachimura goes for a layup against Belgium on Friday. |  JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Rui Hachimura goes for a layup against Belgium on Friday. | JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

The late arrivals of Hachimura and Baba had made Japanese fans anxious over the shorter full-squad preparation time ahead of the Games, when the Akatsuki Five will take on global powerhouses Spain, Slovenia and Argentina in the group stage at Saitama Super Arena. Japan will begin its Olympic quest at 9 p.m. on July 26 against Spain.

But those worries may have been unfounded, as Hachimura’s arrival has given a mental and technical boost to the squad with the Olympic contests around the corner.

Fellow NBA player Yuta Watanabe said Hachimura’s presence settles the team down, adding that the additions of both Hachimura and Baba have improved the squad’s rebounding.

“When he has the ball in his hands, it makes us feel comfortable,” Watanabe said of Hachimura. “So we have to let him play more freely on offense. But with the way he scores from one-on-ones and rebounds, he improves our team by a few levels.”

Watanabe continued that the team was not necessarily over-reliant on Hachimura in Japan’s win over France.

“I think that every player that stepped onto the court did a good job and the win was a result of the team effort,” the co-captain said.

As the team prepares for the main event, Japanese players, team officials and fans are looking to move past their bitter experience two years ago. Ahead of the 2019 World Cup, Hachimura had just become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, and many said that the country had formed the best-ever squad around Hachimura and Watanabe, who now plays for the Toronto Raptors, for the event in China.

Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe look on during Friday's exhibition against Belgium. | JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe look on during Friday’s exhibition against Belgium. | JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

But Japan ended up 0-5 at the tournament, proving it still had a long way to go in order to compete on par with the world’s top-flight national teams.

Two years later, however, the team believes it has made significant strides. At the World Cup, Watanabe was the only member of the squad who had experience playing in a professional league overseas. But now in addition to Hachimura, who has competed in the NBA over the last two years, versatile guard/forward Baba has tested his skills in the NBA G League and NBL over a similar time frame.

This doesn’t guarantee wins for world No. 42 Japan at the Games, but at least it should give the team a better chance to keep up.

“When we played at the World Cup in China two years ago, I’d just been drafted (by the Wizards), but I’ve played in the NBA for two years since and I’ve gotten stronger physically and my shooting’s gotten better,” said the 203-centimeter Hachimura. “And I feel like I’ve particularly become better mentally and feel like I’m ready to play at a bigger stage. We’re entering the Olympics soon and I’m just thrilled about it.”

Hachimura is undoubtedly the best player on the team — he is the best hoopster the country has ever produced for that matter — and the load he has to carry on his shoulders during the games will be enormous.

But he is ready to accept the uphill battles.

“I’m one of the younger players but have a lot of experience,” said the Gonzaga University alum, who has averaged 13.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in his two NBA seasons. “So I would like to use that and hopefully I’ll give confidence to the team. I know I can help my team with my advice.”

Having just learned that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics when he was a student at Sendai’s Meisei High School, Hachimura insisted that he would go to the NBA, represent Japan at the Games and beat the United States.

At the time — when Japan had only seen one NBA player in Yuta Tabuse — not many paid serious attention to the declarations.

But Hachimura has achieved his NBA dream and is about to accomplish another when he takes to the court at the Olympics in several days.

“Playing in the Olympics has been my boyhood dream,” said Hachimura, who will serve as a co-flag bearer for Japan at the opening ceremony at the National Stadium on Friday. “I wanted to play in 2020 but it had to be postponed. But I’m appreciative that we can still play basketball. The Olympics are such a big stage and I’m proud of being part of it. And I want to play my game and help my team get one win at a time and ultimately win a medal.”

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