If Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura was absent from class during school, chances are it was a Friday in mid-February. That’s when the NBA All-Star weekend starts, and this past Friday, Hachimura took part in the Rising Stars Challenge, the very game that he used to skip class to watch.
In a just few years, he’s gone from seeing the NBA All-Star festivities 14 hours ahead on TV in Japan to becoming the face of basketball in his home country. Hachimura started and scored 14 points in Team World’s 151-131 loss to Team USA in this year’s Rising Stars Challenge.
“Basketball in Japan is growing and you can feel the energy getting bigger every year,” Hachimura tells City Paper. “I think it’s pretty cool to see a lot of people start watching and playing the sport in Japan.”
Hachimura credits the NBA for expanding the sport’s popularity in Japan, naming Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe, who went undrafted in 2018, as a primary reason for its growth. But those who know Hachimura recognize that he’s too humble to accept praise for being the catalyst.
As the ninth pick in the 2019 draft, Hachimura’s already-massive star somehow became larger in Japan. Wherever he goes, dozens of Japanese media members follow.
Traditionally, the Wizards have struggled to push their players onto the national stage. John Wall, one of the most popular players in college basketball history, has noted in the past his lack of a national appeal despite his production with the Wizards. This year, players in the league described Bradley Beal as one of the biggest All-Star snubs and he hardly cracked the top-10 in fan voting, coming nearly 100,000 votes shy of fourth-placed Derrick Rose.
But developing a brand hasn’t been a problem for Hachimura, who’s amassed a number of high-profiled sponsors, including Nissin Cup Noodles, Jordan Brand, trading card company Panini, and watch manufacturer G-Shock.
“It’s great. It’s a good feeling [having these sponsors],” he says. “It’s also fun to do these activities because it’s outside of basketball, [which is] my passion.”
Hachimura’s international appeal is a part of the reason why the Wizards were attracted to him despite not bringing him to Washington for a pre-draft work out.
And for Hachimura, D.C. seemed like an ideal fit, given the city’s multi-cultural community.
“I was happy when I got drafted to Washington,” he says. “I knew that D.C. was the capital and knew it was diverse—it’s filled with different cultures. It’s a perfect team for me, coming from Japan to the U.S. only a few years ago. It’s also a good basketball city—a lot of people watch basketball down here.”
With half the season in the books, Hachimura’s goals haven’t changed. He wants to play games in mid-April, when the post-season begin.
The playoffs were on Hachimura’s mind before the Wizards had even hired Tommy Sheppard as a permanent general manager. That, despite the team’s 20-33 record, hasn’t changed.
“First of all, it’s an honor to be a part of this team,” Hachimura says. “I’m so happy—I really like the teammates and coaches. I’m just having fun playing with these guys. It’s been a great season. And hopefully we make the playoffs. We’re only three games away from the playoffs.”
Currently sitting in the ninth spot behind the Orlando Magic, Washington can hardly afford to drop their next two games against the lottery-bound Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavaliers, especially since they’re ending the month against the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Utah Jazz.
Having missed more than a month of the season due to a groin injury, Hachimura has played a significant part in the team’s recent success. This season, Hachimura is averaging roughly 14 points and six rebounds, living up to the “NBA ready” label that he was given before the draft.
Now that the team is largely healthy, Hachimura doesn’t think the team has any excuses, including its youth, as the season goes on.
“It’s my first season and I understand that it’s tough,” he says. “We have a lot of young guys and we’re still trying to get used to the NBA life and NBA basketball. But now we’ve gotten kind of used to it and have started winning more games. We have more chemistry and I think it’s going to get better. We have a tough schedule coming up, but I think we’ll be fine.”