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Former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura returns after missing 39 games for personal reasons

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 10, 2022

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura looks to pass against Orlando Magic in his season debut Sunday.  (Associated Press)
Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura looks to pass against Orlando Magic in his season debut Sunday. (Associated Press)

Rui Hachimura had a feeling Sunday would be the day he returned to NBA game action.

The former Gonzaga standout had missed the Washington Wizards’ first 39 games of the season for personal reasons. He spent the last few months gradually incorporating basketball back into his everyday life.

“I really missed it, I really missed the feeling,” Hachimura said. “The last time I played in an actual game was back in the (Tokyo) Olympics. I was actually waiting for this moment and it really felt right (Sunday). That’s why I talked to coach (Wes Unseld Jr.) and say, ‘I’m ready.’ “

Hours later, Unseld inserted the third-year Wizards forward in the first quarter against Orlando and Hachimura responded with an inspired 14 minutes of playing time in a Washington victory.

“I had to take a little time off,” said Hachimura, who had six points and three rebounds in his season debut. “But I’m so happy to be back on the court and play with these guys. They’ve been really supportive. I love these guys, the players, the coaches, I love them. They’ve been really helpful.”

Washington teammates and Unseld applauded Hachimura’s return.

“It was awesome, man, just seeing him get back into his flow, his routine,” guard Bradley Beal said. “It’s definitely heartwarming for him for one, and two for the team. It gives you more versatility.

“It’s tough on coach’s part, he has to figure out who he wants to play and what the rotations will be. We welcomed him with open arms. We’re happy he did it within his time (frame) and he was very productive.”

Added Unseld: “He was aggressive. I think he gives you that physicality that we lack at times with his size, his ability to play off the bounce. I’m excited to see how this unfolds.”

Hachimura’s last competitive game was Aug. 1, wearing his native Japan’s uniform in a loss to Argentina at the Tokyo Olympics. He rejoined the Wizards in October and slowly began working toward his return.

He declined to elaborate on the reasons for his absence, but he did point out he’s been playing basketball pretty much nonstop since he was 13.

“It’s kind of hard to explain but in Japan we don’t have a season, we play basketball all year,” the 23-year-old said. “I never got (time) off. Even in college, I played (on) national teams in the summer. Last year after the season I went back to Japan to play (for the) national team. It’s been tough.”

Hachimura made huge strides in three seasons at Gonzaga. He essentially learned the English language as a freshman while seeing limited court time. By his junior year in 2019, he was the Zags’ leading scorer and was voted AP second-team All-American.

The Wizards selected Hachimura with the ninth pick of the first round. He earned NBA All-Rookie second-team honors after averaging 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds. He started 57 games last season, averaging 13.8 points and 5.5 boards.

“My conditioning was pretty good,” Hachimura said after Sunday’s game. “I’m in shape, I’ve been working out with the team. I’ve missed this feeling, like I keep saying. Last year we didn’t have fans so this is almost like the first time I’ve played in front of fans since COVID happened.”

Hachimura adds to a fairly deep Washington roster that includes former Zag teammates Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, who is on a two-way contract.

“The way he fits on the team, he provides size and rebounding and on the defensive end helps us with big stretch 4s,” Kispert said last week in a phone interview. “Obviously he’s a really big presence offensively.

“I’m excited for him getting back to enjoying the game, finding joy in it again and realizing why he fell in love with the game in the first place.”

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