Looking back, Rui Hachimura is grateful he stayed at Gonzaga through a stressful first year in Spokane.
He was roughly 5,000 miles from his hometown in Toyama, Japan. He was learning a difficult language that required countless hours of tutoring. In doing so, he missed tons of practice time with his basketball teammates. He wasn’t able to comprehend instruction from the coaching staff.
He played limited minutes, mostly in blowouts, as a true freshman.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be so hard,” said Hachimura in his ever-improving English. “A lot of people helped me. If I didn’t have that help, I would never be able to be like this.
“I didn’t think about (leaving), but if I think about it right now, I would have gone, you know.”
Hachimura omitted one person on his thank-you list: a gifted 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward whose determination and resilience have created a college Player of the Year candidate and an iconic figure in his basketball-starved homeland.
“We were throwing so much at him, and for a while we didn’t even realize how tough it was,” said Zags coach Mark Few, estimating that Hachimura absorbed about 10 percent of discussions at practice. “He’s such a positive, upbeat personality, always has a big smile on his face, but there were times when he was really tired and frustrated, not quite seeing the fruits of his labor. He literally never had a moment off. It was constant academic stuff, individual work, weights, playing, trying to understand what we were doing.
“Sometimes the development piece, the person who deserves most of the credit, is the player. Every day he works before, after and outside of practice. He never has any time off. When we’re done with him, Japan wants any moment, any day, any week they can get, as they’re preparing for the (2020) Olympics, and he’s such a huge part of that. He’s pretty much been ‘on’ for three years.”
Setting the stage
Hachimura’s introduction to basketball came in middle school. He had tried a couple of sports but focused on baseball, Japan’s most popular sport, for six years. He explained that it’s nearly impossible to play two sports because one becomes a year-round endeavor.
He was a pitcher with a pretty good fastball.
“Nobody could catch the ball,” Hachimura laughed. “That’s why I switched.”
A classmate encouraged him to try basketball. He waited a while, but finally made his way to the court, recalling, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
His coach, Mr. Sakamoto, saw potential.
“I don’t know why, but he trusted me and said I’d get better every day,” Hachimura said. “He gave me tapes of NBA and NCAA games of different players. My coach started to say I was going to play in the NBA. I got more serious about it.”
Hachimura said his mom wasn’t an athlete and his dad, a native of the west African nation of Benin, stands about 6-0. The couple had four children before separating. Hachimura’s younger brother, 6-5 Allen, plays at the college level in Japan.
Hachimura blossomed, but the level of competition wasn’t always strong. He put up big stats playing on Japanese national teams, including the U17 championships in Dubai, catching the eye of Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd.
Lloyd eventually got in touch with the team’s trainer, a former Indiana State student, to initiate a dialogue with Hachimura, who was interested in playing in the U.S.
Following the Gonzaga-Pittsburgh game in Okinawa in Nov. 2015 – which was called off after the first half because of slippery floor conditions – Lloyd traveled to watch Hachimura play for the first time.
“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said. “A lot of great tools.”
Lloyd was eventually convinced Hachimura had great upside, too, and there was one open scholarship on the Zags’ powerful 2017 team. Lloyd wondered if Hachimura might benefit from going to a prep school to work on his game and study English, but the prospect qualified after taking the SAT several times.
Hachimura heard from Arizona, LSU, Iowa State and Gonzaga. He visited Arizona and GU. He liked everything about the Wildcats’ program, but he loved Gonzaga’s players, staff and the program’s established success with international players.
His transition to Spokane and U.S. basketball was a challenge from the first day. He spent long hours studying at GU’s English Language Center. He’s effusive in his praise of ELC staff. He picked up phrases and sayings from teammates, songs and television shows, noting “The Vampire Diaries” as his favorite.
Basketball verbiage was another hurdle, but he slowly caught on. Few estimated Hachimura’s level of understanding was 20 to 30 percent by the end of his freshman year, 60 to 70 percent last year, and “now he’s clipping along at 90 percent.”
Hachimura’s growth on the court has been remarkable for a player without the background of 150 AAU games. He was an immediate fan favorite in 2017, with his flashy dunks. He had a prominent role last year, earning first-team All-West Coast Conference honors despite coming off the bench.
Hachimura has been a go-to player this season, becoming more assertive and emotional on the floor and showing off an expanded offensive arsenal.
Next step, next level
Hachimura made the deciding baskets in wins over Duke and Washington. His 22.2-point average has put him in the Player of the Year discussion and elevated his position in NBA mock drafts.
Scouts wanted to see more of Hachimura’s perimeter game. He has obliged somewhat, making 7 of 15 3-pointers, but he’s at his best operating from inside 15 feet.
“We worked on his weaknesses, but his strengths are so obvious it would be a detriment to him and his team to play him another way,” Lloyd said. “He can play like this at any level, the way the game has evolved and changed. Rui in the NBA could play the 5, 4 or 3. That’s what makes him intriguing to a lot of people.”
The intrigue is enormous in Hachimura’s homeland. Japanese media have attended most GU games the past two years, chronicling Hachimura’s rise.
“All of Japan finds it so exciting,” said Akiko Yamawaki, a Los Angeles-based writer for Kyodo News, a Japanese newspaper. “Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball.”
Yuta Tabuse was the first Japanese import to play in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns in 2004. Yuta Watanabe became the second when he appeared in two Memphis Grizzlies games earlier this season. Yasutaka Okayama, a 7-8 center, is the only Japanese player drafted (Golden State, eighth round, 1981).
Next year’s draft isn’t considered particularly strong, which bolsters Hachimura’s chances of being a lottery pick if he skips his senior season.
“I don’t think he’s a great prospect; I think he’s good,” one scout told The Spokesman-Review, explaining that Hachimura appears hesitant to shoot the 3 and he’s not a great finisher after his swift drives inside.
Hachimura’s popularity in Japan would reach another level if he becomes a lottery pick.
“It would be really huge news,” Yamawaki said. “When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.”
Lloyd and his wife Chanelle visited Hachimura a couple of summers ago in Tokyo. As they toured the bustling Shibuya section, a thought popped into Lloyd’s mind.
“We were just hanging out with Rui in Shibuya, which is like Times Square with activity, and the subways are crowded,” said Lloyd, one of the first to recognize Hachimura’s vast potential. “And just walking around I was thinking, ‘This might be one of the last years of his life where he can do this as a normal person.’ It’s crazy when you think about it.”
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