For most NBA draft picks not named Zion Williamson, the scene Friday morning inside the fourth-floor lounge of Capital One Arena might have evoked a quiet gasp, a hint of awe. The room was filled with staffers and Monumental Sports & Entertainment executives but mostly credentialed reporters who traveled from half a world away just to see the Washington Wizards’ newest draft pick up close.
Rui Hachimura didn’t look overwhelmed as he marched to the dais, clear-eyed and confident, to take the center seat for his introductory news conference. He didn’t seem surprised at the attention. In fact, he has seen more.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m used to it,” Hachimura said.
“This is kind of small,” Hachimura said of the crowd.
No major mock drafts projected the Wizards would use the ninth pick on Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 forward from Gonzaga, but he already seems comfortable in the spotlight reserved for young stars. As the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft, however, Hachimura will face attention that will far exceed that for most lottery picks.
Consider that when the Wizards’ Twitter account sent out a message welcoming Hachimura in Japanese on Thursday night, the tweet generated the most interaction of any tweet in the team’s social media history.
Then by Friday morning, the Wizards had issued credentials to 17 Japanese news outlets and at least 41 reporters. That number did not include the many Washington-based media in attendance. Saeko Kamimura, who works for Tokyo Broadcasting System, made the nearly 13-hour flight to cover the draft and follow Hachimura to Washington. She described Hachimura’s popularity in Japan: When he was drafted, news bulletins crawled across the television screens.
“Those bulletins are usually for an earthquake or tsunami,” Kamimura said through an interpreter. “This is a big thing.”
Though Hachimura will not be the first or even the second Japanese player to appear in an NBA game, the fact that he was selected in the top 10 has catapulted him into a stratosphere that once belonged to baseball and soccer players.
“Those two sports are very popular in Japan. So [Hachimura is] compared to those people,” said Tomoya Higashino, the general manager of the Japanese national basketball team.
“All of sudden,” Higashino said, while snapping his finger to indicate the suddenness, “he’s at the same level. The top, top, top, top.”
If his arrival in Washington proved anything, it’s that Hachimura can handle the media demands and expectations of being a lottery pick. Hachimura didn’t shy away from the “young Kawhi Leonard” comparison bestowed on him by ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups: “I think he’s the most I can compare to.” And he confidently explained his versatility: “I literally can do whatever the coach and team tell me.”
Though the Wizards want to manage expectations for their newest player, they also project Hachimura will fit in on a roster on which opportunities are abundant.
“There’s a lot of open spots. I don’t know what that means with him, but I know if he works every day, there’s minutes to be had,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “But now that I talked to him, he doesn’t want me to give him anything, which I love. Just because he’s a high draft pick doesn’t mean that he’s entitled. Hopefully he stays that way and understands that he’s going to have to work, and he will. He doesn’t want me to give him anything. He wants to earn it.”
Washington did not personally interview or work out Hachimura during the pre-draft process. Team officials, however, attended his agency pro day and interviewed his coaches at Gonzaga. Before their spring reconnaissance, the Wizards scouted Hachimura during his three years in college, and interim president Tommy Sheppard’s connection goes back even further to a Basketball Without Borders camp.
With this knowledge, the Wizards believe they will have no problem with their rookie fighting for his minutes.
“He promises that he’ll work on it every day. One thing that was interesting — I’ve never really had too many people tell me this — they said, you better make sure you monitor his [workouts] because he will overwork,” Sheppard said. “So we’re not going to do that yet. We want to see that. But I think over time he’s going to find the perfect sweet spot. We asked all our players to come in here, just be yourself. Coach had a great conversation earlier with them about that. But if yourself is a very hard worker, you’re not going to have any problems playing for the Washington Wizards.”
And if Hachimura becomes a rotation player, then Wizards games probably will become appointment television in Japan, a growing basketball region and the host country for the 2020 Olympics. Even before he has played an NBA game, Hachimura has taken over Japanese media.
“It’s only just begun. Right now if you turn on the TV, you can see Rui,” Higashino said. “If you’re watching in Japan on TV, you see baseball a lot. Soccer, maybe sumo next. But right now? Rui! Rui! Rui! That’s the big difference.”
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