Josh Perkins scored 20 points in Gonzaga’s season-opening win over Texas Southern on Friday and could barely get to his chair inside the team’s spiffy new locker room.
Zach Norvell Jr. encountered the same problem about 10 feet away.
Their cubicles border Rui Hachimura’s locker and space was limited with the spillover from a dozen Japanese media interviewing the Zags’ sophomore forward. A year ago, two Japanese reporters chronicled Hachimura’s first collegiate game.
The difference? Hachimura is expected to be a key player after seeing minimal time as a freshman, and that means much more attention from Japanese media.
“People (in Japan) know last year even though Gonzaga went to NCAA final he didn’t play, maybe only a couple of minutes,” said Seattle-based Masa Niwa, a writer for Japanese magazine Dunk Shoot, prior to Friday’s tip-off. “This time they know he’s going to start, probably going to play 20-something minutes.
Niwa mentions that Hachimura is showing up on NBA mock drafts and adds, “People know he could be the first Japanese born player to be drafted. It could be first one, could be last guy. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Hachimura didn’t start, but he displayed the explosive athleticism that has caught the eye of NBA scouts. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder from Toyoma, Japan, is also showing more of an all-around game than just the crowd-pleasing dunks that symbolized his freshman season.
Hacihmura handles the increased attention in stride. He has broad, sturdy shoulders and he’s going to need them to deal with soaring expectations in his homeland.
“I really don’t mind,” he said. “This is my life.”
Hachimura’s popularity sprouted when he dominated in high school in Japan and at international tournaments. It reached another level when he committed to Gonzaga. Last season it’s believed he became just the fifth Japanese born player to appear in a Division I game.
Hachimura’s impressive performance for Japan at the U19 World Cup last summer prompted a few national college basketball writers to label him as a “breakout” player this season. He projects to be an important member of the Japanese national team with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon.
Yoko Miyaji, who is based in Los Angeles and writes for Japanese magazine Sports Graphic Number, covered the U19 tournament in Cairo as well as a handful of GU regular-season games last year, the WCC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t want to put a lot pressure on him myself,” Miyaji said, “but there are a lot of expectations, especially after that U19, not just (from) Japanese people but also some of the U.S. draft websites. And that excites Japanese people, too, it gives more pressure that way.”
The presence of Japanese newspaper, magazine and television outlets essentially doubled the number of media covering Friday’s game. Upcoming Zag road games in New York, Seattle, L.A. and the Bay Area will probably draw sizable Japanese media contingents.
Baseball and soccer are Japan’s most popular sports, Niwa said. Basketball was extremely popular during Michael Jordan’s career and resurfaced to a lesser degree when Yuta Tabuse became the first and only Japanese import to play in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns in 2004.
“Probably Rui could be the next guy?” Niwa said. “If this kid gets drafted, it could (go to) a different level. I think all the Japanese fans are kind of looking for that.”
Hachimura is trying to keep his focus on the present.
“I feel a little bit (more pressure) because those main players left from last year’s (Gonzaga) team,” Hachimura said. “People say it is my time, but I want to have a process. I want to (improve) little by little. I want to learn the system … step by step.”