Rui Hachimura sat down in front of a sea of cameras and microphones at WinTrust Arena and scooted up his chair. The 22-year-old smiled and looked over his left shoulder to a group of Japanese reporters.
“Kon’nichiwa,” the rookie said, greeting his fellow countrymen.
It was the Rising Stars’ media availability at All-Star Weekend in Chicago and dozens of reporters wanted to hear the rookie speak. An American reporter tried to sneak in a question.
“Let’s do Japanese, no English,” Hachimura told him with a laugh.
For the next 15 minutes, Hachimura broke new ground. It’s the first time a Japanese-born player participated in the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and, despite his unique background, Hachimura proved he belonged all the same, shining as part of Team World in the Rising Stars game and completing more dunks (6) than the NBA’s hottest box-office item, Zion Williamson (5).
Hachimura’s star-turn is remarkable considering he didn’t play basketball until 2012, when he was 14 years old. Then again, this year’s All-Star Weekend was, on some level, proof that you don’t have to be a basketball lifer to ascend to the top of the sport. Pascal Siakam didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16 years old. Like Siakam, Joel Embiid was devoted to soccer until he picked up a basketball at the age of 15.
For Hachimura, growing up in a baseball-obsessed country of Japan, it seemed almost destined that he would spend his life on a diamond instead of a hardcourt. Even his first name, Rui, given to him by baseball-loving grandfather, translates to “base” in Japanese. Hachimura jokes that he switched to basketball because no one could catch his fastball. A late growth spurt that stretched him to 6-foot-8 ensured that Hachimura would play hoops for good.
He quickly rose the basketball ranks in Japan, flourishing in international competition on Japan’s FIBA U17 and U19 national teams and drawing the attention of college recruiters in America. Just three years after landing at Gonzaga University amid eligibility issues over his poor command of the English language, Hachimura was named a finalist for Naismith Player of the Year. A few months later, the Washington Wizards shocked the league and made Hachimura the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
To some, the fact that Hachimura wasn’t schooled in basketball his entire life was a disadvantage. How could he possibly catch up with the world’s greats? But it was Hachimura’s lack of miles on the hardwood that caught the basketball world’s attention.
* * *
Marcus Elliott is a Harvard-trained physician who founded P3 Peak Performance facility, an industry-leading sports science hub in Santa Barbara, CA. Elliott and his team have assessed and studied the biomechanics and injury risk profiles of hundreds of NBA players and hundreds of other athletes at the youth, collegiate, Olympic and pro levels.
Elliott’s P3 partnerships extend all the way around the globe, even in Japan. Elliott tries to visit on a yearly basis, equally drawn to the Japanese work ethic and its cuisine. He refers to Japan as “a 10,000-hour culture” with an emphasis on discipline and repetition. In high school, Hachimura played for legendary head coach Hisao Sato at Meisei High School and also for Japan’s junior national team, led by German head coach Torston Loibl. Loibl says Meisei workloads are the stuff of lore, practicing four hours a day “at minimum.” Loibl estimates that players from Hachimura’s high school would log over 300 practices a year.
“In high school, I practiced almost all day,” Hachimura says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know what to do. In college, I was more efficient.”
The demanding Meisei practice schedule didn’t phase Hachimura. Loibl was always struck by Hachimura’s positivity and work ethic. He remembers the night before the U17 World Cup, when Hachimura and two teammates knocked on his hotel door at midnight before a big game. Loibl awoke in a panic and hurried to open the door, only to find Hachimura smiling and asking to go over the game plan one more time.
“I love Rui’s mentality,” Loibl says. “He is very focused, works hard and always wants to get better. When (players) have gone through the Japanese system, everything else feels like vacation.”
Japanese basketball culture isn’t new to Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. Sheppard was part of the Phoenix Suns’ organization when they brought in Japanese prospect Yuta Tabuse for Summer League and a short period of the 2004-05 season.
“I don’t think they had pitch counts in Japan,” Sheppard jokes. “(Hachimura’s training) was difficult -- I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult -- but I still wouldn’t put it up against any AAU schedule.”
The difference is in the type of training. Japanese prospects like Hachimura faced long hours of practice, but the schedule was light on games and globe-trotting travel.
“I didn't play as many games as the American players did,” Hachimura says.
While AAU athletes fly around the country for tournaments, Hachimura mostly stayed inside Japanese borders. By sheer land mass, Japan is smaller than the state of California.
“The AAU travel schedule, it’s crazy,” Elliott says. “That by itself is super hard on the body. Japan is a few small islands. Even if (Japanese prospects are) playing a lot of games, it’s hard to make a case that it’s going to be as ballistic as it is here playing against the best kids in the country over and over and over.”
In Hachimura’s short time in the Japanese system, Sheppard found a basketball culture that prioritized coaching and personal growth above all else. The games were almost secondary. Out of that, Hachimura’s NBA future was honed.
“It was really refreshing to see,” Sheppard says. “They do care about their kids. It isn’t anywhere near what an AAU season would be.”
The fact that Hachimura wasn’t a basketball lifer, not playing the game until he was 14 years old, was considered a feature, not a bug.
Says Elliott: “That’s got to be an asset. That’s got to be a positive.”
* * *
The Wizards didn’t bring Hachimura in for a formal workout ahead of last June’s draft for fear of other teams picking up on the scent. The front office, led by the newly-promoted Sheppard, had done their homework. They loved his size and impressive feel for the game. Oddly enough, that he played baseball for most of his life appealed to basketball scouts like Sheppard.
“With Rui, the miles were very attractive to us,” Sheppard says. “Very low compared to a normal kid his age if he was an elite player coming up through the (American) grassroots system.”
Sheppard has been scouting NBA prospects all over the world for over two decades and had grown increasingly worried about what he was seeing in American gyms. Elite prospects in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) system would play over a hundred games a year, putting excessive wear-and-tear on their bodies. An in-depth ESPN two-part series this past summer put a spotlight on the corrosive American youth basketball culture and the injury “epidemic” that followed prospects into the NBA.
Cautionary tales of the AAU ranks are numerous around the NBA. Though the AAU system helped bring many players the exposure that took them to elite college programs and later the professional ranks, those same players marvel in hindsight at the workload they faced as youngsters.
Wizards forward Troy Brown Jr. recalls playing in AAU tournaments as early as eight years old. By the time he was in eighth grade, he had quit other sports to play basketball year-round and was playing up to four games in a day. Sometimes, that also meant playing in multiple tournaments and age groups at the same time.
"I played like 24/7," Brown said. "I feel like at the beginning of it, it’s really fun. But when it gets down to winning games and trying to get to the championship and stuff like that, it definitely wears on you mentally. At the end of the day, you’re younger and you’re not really worried about load management. You just love basketball. You just play."
Wizards center Thomas Bryant noted how long drives and the money parents put up for their kids to play in tournaments can add a different type of pressure. His hardest time in AAU was a tournament in Albany, NY, where he played four games in one day.
In between games, he was wearing down, but had to keep going.
"My mom was upset because I was tired. She was like 'I didn't drive all this way for you to be tired, you better go out there and win this championship.' Luckily, we did," he said.
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has been in the NBA since 1987; first as a player for ten years, now as a coach in his 11th season. His coaching career alone has spanned a generation of NBA players from Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Hachimura.
Brooks has also been around long enough to notice how the rise of AAU has changed the NBA. That includes seeing a rise in the amount of players who are more used to playing an isolation game than within a team system, something Kobe Bryant railed against for years.
"A lot of these programs play 60 games in a summer and four games in a day,” Brooks said. “Two things; the wear-and-tear on the body and the win-losses don’t really mean as much. If you lose a game at 10 a.m. it’s ‘Hey, don’t worry we’re going to come back at 12:30 [p.m.].’ If you lose that game [it’s the same thing], so there’s no value in playing for the win because you’ve got a game in two hours. When you grow up in that, then it becomes [meaningless].
"Good players and good teams, the losses hurt. You can’t live in it and dwell in it, but you’ve gotta learn from it. It has to hurt and then you move on.”
While some might look at Brooks’ comments as the complaints of a long-time NBA coach, it’s much more than that for the basketball lifer and father of two.
"I think it’s too much,” Brooks said of the AAU workload. “I know I wouldn’t put my kids in that situation to play that many games at that young an age where their body is still growing.”
* * *
Elliott can’t get the image out of his head.
When asked about Hachimura’s road to the NBA, Elliott brings up a scene from a little over two years ago in his P3 gym. It was then that Elliott stood in a room with Zion Williamson and eight other top American high school players as part of a P3 initiative called BluePrint Camp. The point of the camp was to educate the teenage phenoms on how to take care of their bodies and to help identify minor biomechanical issues that could become major ones down the line. He opened with a question.
“Raise your hand if you have something that’s hurting you right now,” Elliott said.
He didn’t know what he’d find. In an NBA locker room, Elliott estimates he’ll see about 40 percent of the hands go up as the wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule takes its toll. But in this room full of teenage phenoms, it was a different story.
“Everyone raised their hand,” Elliotts says. “Every one of them. I was like, ‘Wow.’ These young AAU players, at an elite level, almost all of them have something hurting.”
Though it’s unclear how much can be attributed to AAU scheduling, the top of the most recent draft class has already had its injury issues. Williamson has missed 45 of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 55 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Williamson’s former AAU teammate, Ja Morant, selected second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, needed offseason knee surgery that forced the 20-year-old to start the season on a load-management regimen. The No. 3 overall pick, R.J. Barrett, a Canadian prodigy who traveled around North America playing in AAU tournaments before he even entered sixth grade, recently missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury.
In Elliott’s eyes, avoiding the AAU circuit is no small thing when projecting an NBA player’s career.
“I think Rui’s in a much better place because of it,” Elliott says. “It’s a real story.”
* * *
The thrilling impromptu dunk competition between Williamson, Morant and others at the end of the Rising Stars caused an emotional tug-of-war for several executives around the league. Have a blast, dunk all you want, this is an entertainment product for the fans, after all. But on the other side, insiders also winced with every thunderous dunk attempt. One bad takeoff or landing could jeopardize a career or franchise.
The NBA has grown increasingly cognizant of the wear-and-tear that comes with NBA basketball and have gone to extensive measures to monitor the pounding. When Hachimura started playing basketball full-time in 2012, the title-contending Miami Heat had just begun using a gadget called VERT in practice, a fancy piece of wearable technology that tracked the number of jumps exerted by a player. With an aging core, the coaching staff wanted to keep unnecessary dunks to a minimum.
It remains to be seen whether Hachimura’s road less traveled will pay off down the line. He missed 23 games this season after suffering an accidental kick below the belt that later required a surgical procedure. The good news is that he hasn’t missed a game yet due to a wear-and-tear injury.
“There are only so many bullets in a six-gun,” Elliott says. “You only have much cartilage in your knees. If you use 30 percent of it playing youth basketball, you have less to draw from when you try to go make a career of this thing.”
On Friday, the crowd roared as Williamson, Morant, Barrett and Hachimura’s college teammate, Brandon Clarke, attempted gravity-bending dunk after dunk. But one person who was notably absent from that dunk competition.
Hachimura was on the court, but he was passing the ball off and barely crossing halfcourt as the others did basketball Circque de Soleil. Hachimura seemed to be perfectly happy as an onlooker. He might as well have been on a baseball field in Japan.