NBA Draft 2019: Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura 'excited' for chance to be first Japanese player taken in first round
The Zags' Hachimura has a big opportunity to be a star on and off the court
On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, Rui Hachimura, the 21-year-old forward from the Gonzaga Bulldogs, was, as he put it, "driving to GQ." By "driving to GQ," what Hachimura meant was that one of his representatives was navigating the clogged highways of Southern California to take him to a photo shoot for GQ Japan.
As he prepares for the NBA Draft, where he is expected to be a lottery pick on June 20, Hachimura is balancing his basketball responsibilities – you gotta hit the gym, you gotta prepare for interviews at the combine in Chicago in a few weeks – with his business responsibilities. Responsibilities such as sorting out which shoe company he wants to sign a deal with. There are the obvious ones (Nike, Adidas and Under Armour), as well as the new entrants into the NBA space like New Balance and Puma. There are also Japanese shoe companies like Asics, Mizuno and Dome, and even the Chinese shoe company Anta. They've all expressed interest.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Hachimura.
That's because Hachimura is not your typical soon-to-be lottery pick. When Hachimura's name is called by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, he'll become the first Japanese first-round pick in NBA history. There is an inordinate amount pressure on his shoulders. You can see that pressure back in his hometown of Toyama, a coastal city on the Sea of Japan that Hachimura compares to Spokane, Washington, where he spent three years attending Gonzaga: "Lots of people, but it's kind of chill, nature, mountains, ocean."
Since Hachimura's career began to take off, so did basketball in his hometown, now rivaling – and perhaps surpassing – baseball and soccer as the most popular sport among youth. You could see that pressure in the locker room of the Honda Center in Anaheim, California in March, when dozens of journalists from Japanese media outlets surrounded Hachimura while his Gonzaga team played in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
It's a sort of pressure that Hachimura welcomes. And you can see it as Japan prepares to be the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics, where Hachimura will almost certainly be the star player for the home country's men's basketball team.
"Basketball's getting bigger in Japan, and I want to be the guy, be the face of it," Hachimura told CBSSports.com.
He's used to being the center of attention. When he was growing up in Toyama, there was nobody else in town who looked like him: Son of a Japanese woman and a Beninese man.
"My family was the only blacks in our prefecture," Hachimura said. "A lot of people looked at me weird. They'd never seen black people before."
He grew up a baseball player; his first name, Rui, means "baseball base" in Japanese and was bestowed on him by his grandfather, a huge baseball fan. Hachimura played pitcher and catcher while growing up. He idolized Ichiro Suzuki, the all-time great baseball player from Japan.
When he was 13, one of Hachimura's baseball teammates really wanted him to try basketball. After all, Hachimura was tall and powerful, and an excellent athlete. Hachimura resisted.
"But he was so annoying," Hachimura said. "I said, 'No way will I play basketball – no way!' But every morning he came up to me and said, 'Let's play basketball. Come to tryouts with me.' He did it for two weeks straight. I finally went to try out. The coaches really loved me."
Even though he had hardly even watched basketball before, and had a very rudimentary understanding of the sport, you could tell from the jump that he was a natural.
"My junior high coach, the first time I practiced, he told me to my face, 'You're going to the NBA,' " Hachimura laughed. "I was young, I was stupid, so I believed him: 'Yeah, I'm going to the NBA!' "
Turns out that coach was onto something. Hachimura rose quickly through the ranks of Japanese basketball. His high school team won three national high school titles, and Hachimura was invited to play in the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic. He wasn't sure if he wanted to play collegiate basketball in the United States or go directly to play professionally, but his mother convinced him this was the only time he could go to college.
Gonzaga associate head coach Tommy Lloyd constructed a three-year plan for Hachimura: Redshirt that first year, and then after two years playing for Gonzaga and developing as a player, he could give a try at the NBA.
His first year at Gonzaga was difficult. He didn't know the language. He didn't know the culture. Even the cars were different, driving on the opposite side of the road that he was used to. He thought about quitting. The basketball was different, too, a much more physical game than he was used to. And he was used to always being the best player on the court growing up in Japan. That was no longer the case.
But his coaches nudged him on: His second year would be easier than the first, especially as his language improved. He studied tape of Kawhi Leonard, the two-way player Hachimura most tries to emulate. He brought a positive spirit and a big smile, and he wasn't afraid to ask coaches to explain things he didn't understand.
Things got easier his second season. This season, he broke out as a star, averaging nearly 20 points and 6.5 rebounds while displaying a non-stop motor on both ends of the court. His trajectory at Gonzaga had him making massive improvements each year, capitalizing on his raw gifts – very good athleticism, a quick first step, a 6-foot-8 body that's well-built to go against NBA forwards and a wingspan that's well over 7 feet. He's a jack of all trades whose biggest area of improvement will likely need to be his 3-point shot; Hachimura shot an impressive 41.7 percent from 3-point range this season, but he only took one 3-pointer per game.
All these basketball skills could line up for a unique opportunity for Hachimura.
"There's a captive audience in a well-developed country, and he's culturally relevant having been a star in the US," said Jason Ranne, one of Hachimura's agents at Wasserman. (Full disclosure: I am also a Wasserman client.) "He has an opportunity to go to the Elite Eight, be a national star, be a Wooden Award finalist, get drafted, then go to the Olympics in his home county. Those things don't just line up like that. It's lucky, sure, but like that John Wooden quote, 'Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.' The sky is the limit as far as how to do his marketing. They don't have an athlete in Japan like him. It's basically him and (tennis player Naomi) Osaka who are Japanese athletes who'll be seen on the world stage in world events."
There are two keys for Hachimura's success to translate from the basketball court to the business and endorsement world. No. 1 is this: The first thing must remain the first thing. His business is being a professional basketball player. All the other stuff – endorsements, appearances, the trappings of fame – are the sideshow.
"Some players put the sideshows as the main show, and before you know it there's no sideshows, because the main show is gone," said Darren Matsubara, Hachimura's co-agent at Wasserman. "Those things will disappear as soon as you're not doing everything you can as a professional basketball player."
The other key is for Hachimura to be selective about his business opportunities outside of basketball. The demand on his time and to capitalize on his likeness will be huge because of his cultural pull in Japan and the historic nature of becoming the first Japanese first-round pick. (The only other Japanese basketball player in the NBA is Yuta Watanabe, who played in 15 games for the Memphis Grizzlies this season.) He could easily gobble up every opportunity that comes his way, take the money, and dilute his brand – not to mention his soul. His representatives are guarding him against that.
"I'm so excited about it. I want to be the guy who can be the whole athlete for Japan."Rui Hachimura
"His introduction into that world has to be very selective and genuine," Matsubara said, "so that as he gets more and more experience in that world, it comes off as if it's close to his heart and it's not just a chore. I remember in 'Rocky II,' when Rocky Balboa had to do all those commercials. He said he felt like a clown. That's such a teaching moment for me. It told me that for players, especially early in their career, try to pick things that are genuine to you so you enjoy it, rather than looking at it as a money grab."
The money will come for Hachimura, no doubt. He'll sign a deal for millions of dollars with an NBA team in a few months, and he'll have millions more in endorsements rolling in. He may have the biggest off-court business potential of any player in this draft not named Zion Williamson. On the court, he could become a Wilson Chandler, a Boris Diaw, an Aaron Gordon, a Ron Artest. Or he could surpass all those players. His development as a big-time NBA player could take time – he's only been playing regularly against elite competition for a few years – but it could pay off for whichever team invests in him.
"I'm so excited about it," Hachimura said. "I want to be the guy who can be the whole athlete for Japan. Shoe companies, they tell me I'm going to be big. I'm so excited about it. It's a little bit of pressure. People expect me to be great. But it's not a big deal for me. I just have to do whatever I can on the basketball court."
And the rest will take care of itself.
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