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Rui Hachimura stars in Summer League as historic Japanese-born pick

Updated July 8, 2019 - 9:18 pm

Japanese journalist Sotaro Nagasawa has covered the NBA for several years. All without following a single player from his country.

“This time, we have somebody. We have a couple of players,” Nagasawa said at Vegas Summer League from the bowels of the Thomas &Mack Center. “It’s totally different.”

Totally historical, too.

Rookie forward Rui Hachimura was selected No. 9 overall last month by the Washington Wizards, thus becoming the first Japanese-born player taken in the first round of the NBA draft.

The 6-foot-8-inch bruiser played at Gonzaga from 2016 to 2019 and amassed an impassioned following that extends all the way to his home country, from which dozens of reporters have traveled to Las Vegas to cover their native son.

“It’s history,” said Nagasawa, a longtime broadcast reporter. “(Draft day) was a day that he made history in Japan. … People in general couldn’t relate to the (NBA) because the physicality is so different from normal Japanese people. Now, it’s changing.”

Hachimura is joined at Summer League by a trio of Japanese players — Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies, Yudai Baba of the Dallas Mavericks and Makoto Hiejim of the New Orleans Pelicans. Watanabe went undrafted last year but played 15 games for the Grizzlies to become the second Japanese player to play in a regular-season game — and first since Yuta Tabase in 2004.

Hachimura, barring injury, will officially join Watanabe and Tabase as the third this fall.

The 21-year-old Hachimura was born in the populous Japanese prefecture of Toyama and emerged rather quickly as the country’s best high school player while leading Mesei High School to three consecutive championships in the All-Japan High School Tournament. He garnered interest from several American colleges and signed with Gonzaga, where he honed his English and became the fifth Division-I player from Japan.

“He made it to the NBA, but even if he didn’t, it would have been something historical for Japan,” Nagasawa said. “We were kind of wondering if he was going to break through and actually be recognized as a draft prospect. Then he grew and grew.”

Into one of the best college players in the country.

Hachimura averaged 4.6 minutes as a freshman in 2016-17 but blossomed into a key rotation player for Gonzaga as a sophomore and averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds. He logged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds during his junior season of 2018-19 to earn first-team All-America and West Coast Conference Player of the Year Honors and credits Bulldogs coach Mark Few with helping him develop the gritty, mentality he brings to court.

“Every game I come out with energy, and (I) play hard,” Hachimura said. “I’m just enjoying the experience. … I’m trying to improve my game. Working hard. We have Summer League right now, and I can try a lot of things on the court.”

Through two Summer League games, Hachimura is averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds while displaying his physicality, athleticism and two-way potential.

He started in Japan. Now he’s here — in the NBA

Where he’d always wanted to be.

With an entire country behind him.

“A lot of people in Japan now think that the NBA is possible,” said Watanabe, Hachimura’s friend and national team teammate. “Back then, people in Japan thought the NBA was an impossible thing to do. … I hope a lot of kids watch us and hope the NBA becomes their dream.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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