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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Despite their collegiate accomplishments, the toughest challenges still await this bunch of Bulldogs

UPDATED: Thu., June 20, 2019

For Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the biggest challenges are yet to come.

That might seem a little presumptuous, or a lot preposterous, given the events which led these two latest exemplars in Gonzaga’s basketball storybook to their personal grail on Thursday night – selection in the first round of an NBA draft which in order and timing offered minor surprises, as this carnival often will.

Plus there’s the $12 million the two are guaranteed collectively over the just the next two years that tends to mitigate the notion of challenge.

Or ratchets it up. You can never be sure.

For Hachimura, his selection by the Washington Wizards in the No. 9 spot bettered much of the predraft handicapping, though as he noted in a polite dismissal in his podium session at the Barclays Center, “Those are media guys projecting.”

Rui may not have stayed at Gonzaga long enough to collect his degree, but he obviously got an education.

Then again, no one from the Wizards – who did their evaluations and drafting with only an interim general manager in place – had met him prior to draft night, so Hachimura had to be as surprised as anyone.

As for Clarke, well, he’d expected a selection between 10 and 20 on draft night and came in just below that at 21, after the Memphis Grizzlies swapped picks with Oklahoma City to move up two spots. That spares any Zag fan who doubles as a Sonics griever from an impossible choice, at least.

And while two players in the lottery would have been a nice distinction for Gonzaga, the program will surely settle for having a pair in Round 1 for the first time ever.

Duke and Kentucky do that sort of thing every year, drafting their rosters from the McDonald’s All-America list.

That’s not how these Zags got here.

Instead, there was a coltish mystery guest from Japan who two years ago sometimes didn’t see mop-up minutes in meaningful games, struggling as he was to grasp the basics of college basketball – never mind the nuances – and the ABCs of English. Yes, there’s a junior high coach – Joji Sakamoto, who got a nice shout-out on TV from his former player – in Miyagi Prefecture who told a 13-year-old Hachimura that he would play in the NBA, despite his country’s tissue-thin résumé in the sport. Now, that probably struck the right motivational chord – and it was best left unspoken to a teenager any outline of the sacrifices, trials and blind faith required to make it come true.

And in Clarke, Gonzaga’s noted Redshirt Academy will get credit for another success, though it’s hard not to give it all to the player himself. Vastly under-recruited, Clarke landed first at San Jose State – and began work on retooling his shot and buffing his game even before throwing in with the Bulldogs. Hachimura’s sleek possibilities were getting him getting NBA mentions even while riding the pine as a freshman, but Clarke took himself from well off the draft board to 21st in just five months at GU.

Still, the trail only gets steeper and rockier.

There was considerable sentiment that Clarke falling to 21 made him the “steal” of the draft. There will be minutes alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. in what should be a thorny defensive frontcourt – not just because of their spectacular shot blocking, but their abilities to switch and help. And the thought of Clarke collecting lobs to the rafters from No. 2 pick Ja Morant is pretty delicious.

But if Clarke did slip, he slipped for a reason. He’s as yet no threat at all from the outside – problematic in today’s NBA – and at 6-foot-8 he’s an undersized big man, even if there’s more smallball being played than ever before.

Hachimura, too, must adapt his game to the NBA – while lugging the weight of a nation’s hopes and scrutiny. He’s dealt with it some at Gonzaga already, but becoming Japan’s first NBA draft pick will see it mushroom – some 23 Japanese media outlets were on hand in New York, and many will dog him arena to arena. It’ll be the Ichiro treatment – different because basketball does not generate the same affection as baseball, but as intense because, well, there’s nobody else like him, really. It will be inescapable.

Both players, Hachimura in particular, will have to endure the modern blather that suggests that any first-rounder who falls short of All-Pro status is somehow a bust. No one much wants to hear that there wasn’t a single lottery pick on the recently crowned NBA champions.

And TV talking head Chauncey Billups hardly did Hachimura any favors with his new fan base by comparing him to Kawhi Leonard, even obliquely.

As if the usual challenges aren’t substantial enough.

Good thing Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have some experience in facing them down.

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