LAS VEGAS – The Rui Hachimura era is underway.
From Toyama, Japan, to Spokane to Las Vegas to Washington, D.C.
The 6-foot-8 native of Japan, after just three games played in the NBA Summer League, is an icon.
“He’s the hope of Japan right now,” said former Gonzaga teammate Johnathan Williams, who played with the Houston Rockets in this year’s summer league.
He’s also the hope of a Washington Wizards franchise that made crucial offseason moves – including drafting Hachimura ninth overall last month – to become a contender in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s gonna be with us, he’s gonna play big minutes for us, he’s gonna be a really good player for us,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks during an interview on ESPN.
Hachimura, who led Gonzaga in scoring last season with 19.7 points per game while shooting 59% from the field and was named the West Coast Conference player of the year, averaged a team-high 19.3 points per game plus 7.0 rebounds for Washington this past week.
“Rui’s a great player, he’s very mature, he’s getting used to the game,” said second-year Wizard Troy Brown Jr. “He’s definitely an NBA pro, it just takes some time to get acclimated and get used to all of the new stuff that you have to learn.”
Thing is, per summer league coach Robert Pack, this young hopeful has transitioned quite easily, something he feels will make one of the most successful players from Gonzaga a success in the NBA.
“He has a really good feel, you could tell; the questions he asks, the improvising he does on the court, you could tell he has a really good feel for it,” Pack said. “Coming from a system where a coach is used to coaching guys longer, really teaching the game the right way, I think it helps a player like Rui coming into the league.”
The Bulldog way
The common theme across the summer league all week when it pertained to the Gonzaga contingent of Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr., has been basketball IQ, and how well Gonzaga coach Mark Few prepares his players.
“This is a dream come true for all of us,” Norvell said. “The connection we had at Gonzaga was amazing. We’re all competitors and all want to do well.”
Not one to usher his players out the door, but more so a coach who cultivates and develops talent during their stay in Spokane, Few received praise regarding how well Gonzaga’s products arrive at the NBA.
“His players are ready, they’re prepared, highly intelligent about the game of basketball and they have a jump on other folks,” NBA analyst and former head coach Mark Jackson said. “It’s a credit to the job he does year in and year out as a head coach in impacting these young guys.”
And it was Hachimura at the center of attention all week, as the Wizards drew some of the biggest crowds for games – including Saturday’s finale in which he didn’t even play – and media scrums afterward, which were dominated by many of the 61 members from 21 outlets in Japan.
Hachimura’s legacy started long ago, during the three years he helped Gonzaga to three trips to the Sweet 16, two Elite Eights, and an appearance in the national championship game. It’s his stature in the locker room, on the court, on the bus, in team meetings and on the bench that makes him such an appealing teammate.
“He’s not only a great player, but he’s also a great guy to be around and talk to,” said fellow Wizards rookie Garrison Mathews. “It’s a blessing being on his team.”
Hachimura is the type of player who knows he is not only representing himself, his teammates or his family, but also his native land.
“He’s really, really a polite guy,” said longtime Japanese media member Sotaro Nagasawa, who has covered the NBA for nine years. “He works hard, and he doesn’t slack off, even on and off the court. And that really represents us as Japanese, because we’re really hard-working people. We love players that work hard on and off court, we love players that are focused.
“We sometimes can’t relate to the superstars or megastars that are all about themselves, bragging about how their life is so good. Our culture is more of like craftsman culture, from the samurai age. It’s all about respecting others and perfecting your art. In that way Rui, I think, is representing the mentality that we have in general.”
Hachimura said since the NBA draft, he’s been able to spend one week in Washington, D.C., getting to know the surroundings, and meeting everyone in the organization, something he said went over well.
Yuta Watanabe, who went undrafted last year but played 15 games for Memphis to become the second Japanese player to play in an NBA regular-season game, said the two talked occasionally while Hachimura was still at Gonzaga, and has tried to stay in touch since he was drafted last month.
“He’s my friend, I’m so happy for him,” said Watanabe, who played with the Grizzlies during the summer league. “He worked so hard to get here. I’m very proud of him. I hope he continues to work so he can impress the whole NBA.”
Brooks said he’s been impressed by Hachimura’s practice habits, thus far, another attribute that comes from playing under Few.
“I like what he does, I like how he competes every practice,” Brooks said. “Every play is the same to him, he can throw down on somebody or tip dunk or make a 3 – you never know. He just has a great feel for the game, a good disposition about him. He’s well liked, the coaches love him. He comes in early, he stays after, he wants to get better.”
And while he’s excited to be in the NBA and playing in an organization he feels has been first class in the short time he’s been a part of it, Hachimura assures he isn’t taking anything for granted. Everything he’s learned during his career will carry over, from putting in extra time, discipline, work ethic – whatever it takes – to elevate his game to NBA standards.
“I’m still learning basketball, the NBA,” Hachimura said. “I’ve got a lot of things I have to cover, on and off the court. I don’t care how high I got drafted, I’m doing whatever I have to do for the team. I have to improve every day little by little and help this team.
“Right now, I’m just enjoying the experience.”
W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez
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