Wizards

Wizards

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.