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Longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge, now the editor-in-chief of The Athletic D.C., lets out a loud laugh. There was nothing normal about Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura‘s introductory press conference at Capital One Arena on Friday. Not even close.
“Oh god, no. For the Wizards? Are you kidding? This is a good problem for them to have for once,” Aldridge says. “It’s nuts. The interest is nuts over there [in Japan]. The attention is going to be crazy. It’s going to be sort of like [with retired Japanese baseball star] Ichiro [Suzuki], kinda. It’s going to be crazy. And that’s a good thing, you know, for the Wizards to have some attention.”
The team drafted Hachimura with the ninth overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, a surprise move that has garnered mixed reactions from fans and mostly low grades from pundits. But Friday’s crowd revealed just how important and historic this moment has been. Hachimura became the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the NBA Draft’s first round.
According to a Wizards media relations staff member, the team credentialed over 40 Japanese media members from 17 different news organization for his press conference.
“This is a great, great day for the Washington Wizards franchise,” said Tommy Sheppard, the team’s interim president of operations, in his opening remarks. “We were really, really fortunate last night to be able to draft Rui Hachimura, and our future got much more clear, much more successful just by having him join our franchise.”
This attention isn’t new for Hachimura, who played three seasons for coach Mark Few at Gonzaga University. (He remarked that the group gathered on Friday was “kinda small.”)
The 21-year-old is a major sports celebrity in his native Japan, and has been an inspiration for the sports-crazed country. His journey from a youth baseball player to basketball star has particularly resonated with half-black and half-Japanese kids in Japan. Hachimura’s father is Beninese and his mother is Japanese.
“They have a lot of challenges in sports, not just basketball but other sports,” Hachimura told the The Undefeated in March of biracial Japanese kids. “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 … We have a lot of good athletes in Japan. It’s great. I have to be next, in basketball.”
Hachimura said he arrived in the U.S. speaking “no English” and that he only picked up basketball in seventh grade because one of his classmates pestered him for “two weeks straight” to do so. He remembers that his first coach in junior high told him he would one day play in the NBA. Hachimura credits his Gonzaga coaches and teammates for helping him adjust to life in America, and during his final collegiate season before the NBA Draft, the 6-foot-8 forward averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game for an NCAA Elite Eight team.
But a number of basketball analysts are not convinced he’ll be a good fit for a struggling Wizards franchise. Hachimura has been called a “project as a lottery pick” and “a player who likely puts up empty stats.” On draft night, Ben Mehic of Bullets Forever reported that Hachimura did not speak to anyone from the team before being drafted. For a team still without a permanent general manager, the unexpected nature of the selection did not sit well with some fans.
Aldridge, a D.C. native and former Washington Post reporter, understands those feelings, but believes the skepticism of Hachimura may not be entirely warranted.
“I don’t think the Wizards, where they are in their current circumstances, they couldn’t afford to take a flyer,” he says. “I know people were like why didn’t they take [eventual No. 15 overall pick] Sekou Doumbouya, but a 32-win team cannot take a guy that’s not ready to play, not here. So you gotta take a guy who can play tonight. Rui’s ceiling may not be as high as the other guys potentially, but his floor isn’t as low. He can come in and play and be part of the rotation next year, and I expect him to be.”
Being in D.C. also means that Hachimura will have plenty of opportunities to interact with people with international backgrounds, and he talked about wanting to check out the cherry blossom trees and try Japanese restaurants in the city. He is already familiar with Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal after playing with him at the Nike Camp last year.
“It means a lot,” Hachimura said when asked about his journey from Japan to the NBA. “I still can’t believe what happened yesterday, last night. But I think it’s all the process. I put in all the hard work every day since I played basketball. Especially my first year in college was very hard for me. I literally had no English. I had no idea about culture here. Culture is like different. I’m black, but I’m like totally Japanese. I have a Japanese soul, you know. It was very hard to adjust here, being around American people. Those people at Gonzaga helped me a lot, my teammates, my coach. A lot of people helped me, that’s why I’m here. I’m so thankful.”