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Rui Hachimura mania is a real thing in Japan and may be just starting in Washington

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Rui Hachimura mania is a real thing in Japan and may be just starting in Washington

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards drafted a superstar on Thursday night.

Whether Rui Hachimura will ever reach the definition of that label as a basketball is unclear, but he has already achieved stardom when it comes to worldwide fame and intrigue. As the first ever Japanese-born lottery pick in the NBA, Hachimura has a rabid following that rivals anyone in his draft class, including Zion Williamson.

Hachimura's magnetism was on display Friday afternoon on the fourth floor of Capital One Arena, as the Wizards introduced him less than 24 hours after making him the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft. There were over 40 members of the Japanese media in attendance from over 20 outlets, all jockeying for position to film his every step.

They tracked him in the days leading up to the draft in New York, then travelled down to Washington for his introductory press conference. Not even John Wall, the No. 1 pick in 2010, rolled that deep.

For Hachimura, who hails from Gonzaga University by way of Toyama, Japan, it wasn't anything new. He has been hailed as the next great athlete from his country for years and media attention has become part of his everyday life.

"I'm used to it. This is kind of small," he joked. "When I was in Japan, there were couple of press conferences like this and there were more people."

Not all Japanese athletes get a media contingent like Hachimura does. Sports fans in his country believe he is the type of special talent that could inspire a generation of basketball players.

"There is a crazy fever right now," Go Sudo of the Fuji News Network said. "He has a chance to be as big as Ichiro [Suzuki]."

Hachimura was flanked at his press conference by head coach Scott Brooks and Wizards senior VP Tommy Sheppard, both of which were beaming as they listened to a 21-year-old man they believe has the playing style and character to fit in well with their program. 

They can only hope Hachimura proves as good a fit with their team as he is with the city he will play in. Washington, D.C. has one of the largest Japanese populations in the United States. The Embassy of Japan is only 2 1/2 miles away from Capital One Arena. 

Hachimura said he is ready to embrace the Japanese culture already present in Washington.

"I heard about the cherry blossoms. That's like a Japanese thing. I actually want to go see it," he said. 

"I've heard there are a lot of Japanese people here and I'm so excited to meet those people. And there are good Japanese restaurants, right? I want to try them."

Hachimura is already a big enough global star that he could be one of the most marketable players on the team. Without playing his first NBA game, Hachimura has already picked up a collection of sponsorships including Jordan brand shoes and Nissin, the maker of Cup of Noodles.

That could be only the beginning. The Wizards have already received numerous inquiries from global brands since Hachimura was drafted.

Hachimura has the chance to become a trailblazer for Japanese basketball. His origin story reflects just how unusual his road has been.

Hachimura grew up playing baseball, much like many kids do in Japan, especially since Ichiro's run of MLB stardom. At 13, he tried basketball for the first time and initially didn't see it as a realistic path.

"I went to a practice and I actually didn't want to play basketball, but one of my teammates and classmates, he was annoying me. He wanted me to play basketball," Hachimura said. 

"He would come up to me every morning like 'let's play basketball... Then, in junior high, my coach pointed to me and said 'you're going to the NBA.' I had no idea what the NBA was. But I believed in him and said 'yeah, let's do it.'"

"I'm glad he made a stupid decision," Brooks joked.

From there, Hachimura studied YouTube clips of Carmelo Anthony and worked on his game enough to earn a spot for Mark Few's team at Gonzaga University. Basketball brought him to the United States, whether he was ready for it or not.

"My first year in college was really hard for me. I really had no English. I had no idea about the culture. The culture here is very different. I'm black, but I'm like totally Japanese. I have a Japanese soul. It was really hard to adjust and be around the American people."

Hachimura now hopes both the Wizards and the city of Washington prove a good match for him. Like all draft picks, he offers no guarantees. But the potential for something special both on and off the court certainly seems to be there.

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5 takeaways from Wizards-Pelicans, including Rui Hachimura's breakout

5 takeaways from Wizards-Pelicans, including Rui Hachimura's breakout

The Washington Wizards lost to the New Orleans Pelicans 118-107 on Friday night in Orlando, officially eliminating them from the playoffs. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

Yet another loss

The playoffs were always going to be a longshot for the Wizards and now those hopes are officially a thing of the past. They were eliminated from postseason contention on Friday night with their loss to the Pelicans, who used a 12-point advantage in the third quarter to coast to victory.

Now it is fair to ask if the Wizards will win a single game in Orlando, as with this loss they fell to 0-5 in the restart games that count and 0-8 if you include their three exhibition games before that. Making matters worse is that their three toughest opponents still await.

Their final three games are against the Thunder, Bucks and Celtics. Unless any of those teams rest star players, it will require a major upset for the Wizards to leave Orlando with a victory.

Sure, it's more about player development than anything. But zero wins would be unexpected.

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Rui bounced back

After three games in which he fell short of double-digit points and shot a total of 8-for-29 (27.5%), Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura finally broke through with a big offensive performance. He wasted no time either, with nine points in the first quarter and 15 by halftime. 

Hachimura finished with 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting with six rebounds. It seemed like the Wizards tried to spread things out a bit more to give him space. It didn't hurt the team was able to knock down some threes.

Head coach Scott Brooks explained recently how the team's lack of 3-point shooting has limited Hachimura's ability to go to work in the midrange. He had more room to operate but also hit some tough shots that just didn't fall for him in previous games.

It was good to see, though, because the Wizards only have three more games in Orlando. If any of their young players are going to get something out of this experience, they better do it sooner than later.

No Zion

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Hachimura go up against Zion Williamson, as the Pelicans held him out for rest on the second night of a back-to-back. Williamson, who has been treated very carefully all season, played 22 minutes against the Kings on Thursday.

That would have put the No. 1 pick from last summer against the No. 9 pick and it would have been their first meeting since college. The Wizards didn't see Williamson last July in the Summer League because he got hurt. And their other game against the Pelicans this season was canceled due to the league shutting down because of the coronavirus.

Maybe next year.

Bryant keeps producing

Few players on the Wizards have made the most of the restart quite like Thomas Bryant, who has made the most of his extra shot attempts, especially from long range. Bryant posted another strong stat-line of 22 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He went 9-for-18 from the field and hit two threes.

Much like Troy Brown Jr. (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), Bryant is showing enough in Orlando to warrant some respect next year in the Wizards' gameplan. We're seeing that Brown's play-making should be incorporated into the offense, no matter the fact that John Wall and Bradley Beal will be high usage centerpieces. And Bryant's three-point shooting is begging to be utilized.

Maybe it is as simple as Bryant spending more time on the perimeter as they spread the floor with shooters. Or, he could form a deadly pick-and-pop duo with Wall, who has never really had a reliable partner in that regard in his career. Bryant can also be effective at rim-running. The potential between those two in the pick-and-roll is very intriguing.

Wagner and Robinson were off

Something doesn't seem right with Moe Wagner. He has been one of the Wizards' most disappointing performers so far in Orlando and he just doesn't appear to be himself on the floor.

Wagner had another bad game with two points in 10 minutes. He only attempted one shot.

Before the game, Brooks said he had been thinking a lot about how to get Wagner going, that he wasn't playing with the same spirit he is used to seeing. Beyond that, the numbers tell a bleak story. In five games at Disney World, Wagner has 16 total points. He's averaging 3.2 points per game while shooting 30 percent.

Is it the ankle injury he suffered earlier this year? Is something going on we don't know about? Wagner is a good player, but he hasn't looked like it in Orlando. The good news is he has three games left to change that.

Jerome Robinson had been one of the best stories of the restart for the Wizards, but he took a step back in this one. The second-year guard scored only six points on 2-for-8 shooting. Maybe he can get back going on Sunday against the Thunder.

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Could Zion Williamson be in 'a race against his own body'?

Could Zion Williamson be in 'a race against his own body'?

Zion Williamson is a puzzle that no one can seem to figure out yet. He's built like a defensive end, can jump out of the gym like Vince Carter, yet, he hasn't been able to consistently showcase his unique gifts, because he's always finding himself on the sidelines.

His injury history is well documented. From high school, to college, to summer league, to preseason, to minutes restrictions and now sitting out against the Wizards for rest in the Orlando bubble, his time on the court has been anything but consistent. 

Some, myself included, worry about the long term effects his huge frame and freight train like power will have on his career.  Then there's Dr. Brian Sutterer who tells The Athletic that Zion is in "a race against his own body." 

“If you go watch his Duke highlights compared to now, the difference is profound. In my opinion, his athleticism and conditioning have regressed substantially. He’s less explosive, less conditioned, slower on defense, has already had a portion of his meniscus removed from his knee after an injury, and he’s still under close monitoring from the medical staff.”

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Now, that's one opinion of one doctor, but still, an alarming thing to hear. It's clear the Pelicans have concerns in Williamson's ability to stay healthy based on their efforts to limit his minutes per game. But how long will this last? Will that always be the way they have to handle his playing time? 

Far too often we've seen players' careers get cut short or limited because their body just won't cooperate. The more frustrating part is that when Williamson is on the court, he's still physically dominating. Even with his limited range and lumbering style of play, defenses just can't slow him down. 

There was no way the Pelicans weren't taking Zion No. 1 overall, but it came with significant risks. Risks that we're seeing play out in Orlando. He's looked at as the future of the league, a household name by 18-years-old, but will he be able to reach his full potential?

Only time will tell, and for the sake of the NBA and it's fans, let's hope he doesn't fall short. 

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