The 6'8" forward is dominating the college game and is in line to become the first Japanese NBA Draft pick

Rui Hachimura is no stranger to the spotlight.

The Japanese basketball prodigy has been so dominant for his college this season, that he is being touted as a potential first Japanese NBA draft prospect ever.

Hachimura is the star player of America's Gonzaga University, who are seeded fourth for the March Madness NCAA Tournament.

The 6'8" (2.07m) player will also have one eye on his upcoming international commitments, where he will be spearheading Japan's efforts at August's FIBA World Cup in China.

A tall order for a tall man, considering Japan have been dealt an unenviable draw against the United Sates, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

The small forward had a rare quiet night in Las Vegas and finished the game with nine points, Hachimura was named District IX Player of the Year by the U.S Basketball Writers Association.

The 21-year-old was chosen as the top player from schools within the district including California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Arizona and Arkansas.

Despite ending their 21-game winning streak, the Gonzaga Bulldogs could still be the West Region number one seed heading into NCAA Championships starting on March 19. The team's NCAA Tournament seeding will be announced this weekend on Selection Sunday.

Rui Hachimura in action for the Gonzaga Bulldogs
Rui Hachimura in action for the Gonzaga BulldogsRui Hachimura in action for the Gonzaga Bulldogs

Standing out

Born in Japan to a Beninese father and Japanese mother, Hachimura immediately stood out in such an ethnically homogeneous society.

His first sporting love was baseball, in a country famous for nurturing many professional players.

By his mid-teens Hachimura was already a giant among his peers, and it wasn't long before he found his way to the basketball court.

“One of my old teammates, he was in the same class and he wanted me to play basketball,” the Toyama native told Sporting News.

“He was always asking me to come, to play and I finally decided to go.”

Fast-forward to his sophomore year and Hachimura was representing Japan at the 2014 FIBA Under-17 Basketball World Cup in Dubai: The country's first and only appearance at the event.

Not bad for a kid that first picked up a basketball just seven years ago.

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The American dream

There aren't many young players with such raw, natural talent that fly under the radar of America's college basketball scouts.

So in November 2015, Hachimura found himself setting up a new life in Washington, but things were hard at first.

The 17-year-old had improved his English to a level that was acceptable for entry into the small, private school, but language was still a major barrier.

“I already knew I wasn’t going to play,” Hachimura told Sporting News.

“It was a really hard time with the different culture and the language barrier.

“My teammates really pushed me to talk every day, even when I didn’t speak.”

“They taught me slang and stuff, hanging out with them it was hard but, I’d use a gesture and a translator.”

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GettyImages-1080056880GettyImages-1080056880

However, there was one major aspect of life in America which suited the tall, mixed race athlete well.

“People don’t know anything about me here,” he told Next Shark.

“They just look at me as like another black person. That was so nice. I’m a little bit famous here now, but when I first got here, I really liked it.”

Hachimura and his Gonzaga Bulldogs teammates.
Hachimura and his Gonzaga Bulldogs teammates.Hachimura and his Gonzaga Bulldogs teammates.

Biracial brilliance

Hachimura joins tennis World No. 1 Naomi Osaka, Olympic hammer throw gold medallist Koji Murofushi and Chicago Cubs baseball player Yu Darvish as mixed race sport stars representing Japan.

He hopes his story can inspire other kids from multiracial backgrounds to chase their dreams, in spite of potential marginalisation because of the way they look.

“There is a lot of discrimination. It’s not crazy, but I don’t want them to feel bad for themselves. I want them to enjoy playing sports in Japan," Hachimura told Undefeated.

“We have a lot of good (mixed race) athletes in Japan. It’s great. I have to be next, in basketball.”

The right kind of attention

Hachimura's sophomore season on America's east coast was a different story.

As his English improved, so did his time on the court and he averaged nearly 12 points a game.

This season, those stats have rocketed to 20.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game - a feat which earned him mid-season All-American honours.

His enhanced profile at home and abroad has even lead to some very flattering comparisons with NBA legends.

“His popularity will be as much as LeBron James or Stephen Curry,” Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya Higashino told Sports Illustrated.

He must be feeling more relaxed as he has even been known to drop a few f-bombs in interviews!

'Rui-mania' gripping Japan

If Hachimura's name is called out in the 2019 NBA draft, he will make history as the first Japanese player to be drafted.

But even as the main man in America's No. 1-ranked side, the attention he will receive in the States pales comparison to what happens in Japan.

While football, baseball and martial arts are the most followed sports in Japan, Hachimura enjoys almost rock-star status back home.

The term 'Rui-mania' was even coined in response to the legions of autograph and selfie-seekers that seek him out.

They follow his every move on court though the hordes of Japanese media that descend upon his games in Washington.

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GettyImages-1064114812GettyImages-1064114812

Up for an Olympic test

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon, it is expected that the young giant will spearhead his nation's challenge at the showpiece event.

But despite the pressure of playing against the world's best players in front of and expectant home crowd, Hachimura seemed excited - rather then daunted - at the challenge.

“It’s gonna be a big opportunity for us to show how well we can play against other countries,” Hachimura told Sporting News. “It’s going to be so fun to play in front of my family and all the Japanese people I know.”

But for now, his focus will be on the NBA Draft and whether he can usher in a new dawn for Japanese basketball players.

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