Rui Hachimura: "I want to be the face of Japanese basketball"

Rui Hachimura's NBA hoop dreams are closer than ever but success with Japan at the FIBA World Cup and at Tokyo 2020 is just as important.

Rui Hachimura has the world in his hands.

At 2.03m (6ft8in) tall and 21 years old, the Gonzaga Bulldogs star will likely become the first ever Japanese NBA draft pick this June but success with the national team is just as important to him.

"Basketball's getting bigger in Japan and I want to be the guy, the face of it" -Rui Hachimura

With the NBA Draft at the end of June, the 2019 FIBA World Cup in August and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics a year later, it's all happening for him.

Japan will qualify automatically as hosts of the Tokyo Games and hot property Hachimura wants to put on a show.

But all this may never have happened.

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It was almost as if he was destined to play baseball: his name literally means "baseball base" in Japanese, given to him, reportedly, by his baseball-crazy grandfather.

Born to a Japanese mother and a Beninese father in Toyama, Japan, a young Rui played baseball until junior high school and only picked up a basketball because a friend begged him to play for the school team.

Baseball's loss was basketball's gain:

"My junior high (school) coach, the first time I practiced, he told me to my face, 'You're going to the NBA,'" Hachimura told fiba.com.

"I was young, I was stupid, so I believed him: 'Yeah, I'm going to the NBA!'" -Rui Hachimura

Now that dream doesn't sound so stupid.

Fast learner

This latecomer to basketball learned quick and went from arriving in the U.S. as a 17-year-old with almost no English or pro-ball training to leading Gonzaga into the Elite Eight of the March Madness NCAA in 2019.

The Bulldogs were stunned by Texas Tech and knocked out after a 75–69 loss, but there was no doubting who the star player was.

Hachimura was Gonzaga's top scorer (19.7) and second best rebounder (6.5).

Rui Hachimura takes it to the rim for the Gonzaga Bulldogs against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Anaheim, California, March 30, 2019. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Rui Hachimura takes it to the rim for the Gonzaga Bulldogs against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Anaheim, California, March 30, 2019. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)Rui Hachimura takes it to the rim for the Gonzaga Bulldogs against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Anaheim, California, March 30, 2019. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

In just four years in the USA he went from a green teen with almost no understanding of the technical and tactical side of the game - or of U.S. culture - to an NCAA team leader bound for the NBA.

Recognition came when he was named US NCAA West Coast Conference (WCC) Player of the Year and awarded the prestigious Julius Erving Award as the top collegiate small forward.

Other winners of that award are Stanley Johnson, now at the New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls' Denzel Valentine, the LA Laker's Josh Hart, and last year's winner Mikal Bridges who now plays ball at the Phoenix Suns.

With the strength to take on great physical, mental, and cultural challenges, Hachimura's stellar season convinced him that he wouldn't finish his final college year.

He can't wait to play in the NBA.

"The last three years at Gonzaga have been a dream come true, and now I'd like to pursue my next dream of playing in the NBA" - Hachimura

Rui Huchimura to the Wolves as no.11 NBA Draft pick?

It seems the NBA can't wait either and the talk is all about where might he end up.

It's a lottery.

Literally.

Projected as a first-round draft pick, Hachimura has risen in the estimation of the NBA Consensus Mock Draft:

"One player gaining some steam is Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura," begins a piece that compiles the best mock drafts from around the web.

"In our first look, the raw talent appeared in the lottery four times, but this latest look has him on six of the 10 mock drafts. Four of those mocks see him going to the Wolves, who have the No. 11 pick."

But it isn't just online speculators who see this Japanese giant making it in the big time.

Established NBA star Kemba Walker talked up Rui Hachimura as a future NBA hero on a recent visit to Tokyo.

"I think one day he is going to be a big name in the NBA" - Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker

Walker also praised Hachimura's high-energy coast-to-coast style saying it should be a good fit in the NBA.

“The way the league is now, being able to get up and down at his size, I think he will do very well and I think his game will translate,” he said.

He knows what he's talking about too, the Hornets' bright light earned a first All-NBA selection this 2018-19 season after averaging a career-high 25.6 points per game.

But will NCAA stardom and NBA draft potential translate to the international stage?

Rui Hachimura Japan giant

It already has.

At just 21 Hachimura is the man driving Japan basketball forward.

He wowed on his Japan debut where he scored 17 points in an 88-80 victory over South Korea in an exhibition game.

Local fans had never seen such a big man eat up the court and drive to the basket the way Hachimura does.

He dunked, he dazzled, he shot threes, he played with passion and aggression.

The fans sensed there was something special about the then 20-year-old and the volume went up every time he had the ball.

And that was just the beginning, finished as the 'Akatsuki Five' highest scorer in the World Cup Asian Qualifiers, averaging 21.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, shooting nearly 58 percent from the field.

He wears the mythical number 23 jersey for Japan, and looks worthy of it too.

Japan won their last eight games and Hachimura helped the country return to the World Cup after a 13 year absence.

That 8-game winning streak and 'Hachimura-mania' gave Japanese fans something to believe in and they packed the stadiums to watch and support.

"Basketball's getting bigger in Japan and I want to be the guy, the face of it," said Hachimura.

"I'm so excited about it. I want to be the guy who can be the whole well-rounded athlete for Japan."

With the NBA Draft in June and the FIBA World Cup in August, 2019 looks set to be a defining year for Rui.

Then there's 2020 where he'll have a chance to do his thing in Tokyo on the world's greatest sporting stage.

It's an exciting time to be a Japanese basketball fan.

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