The Wizards had their eye on top pick Rui Hachimura for some time according to interim president Tommy Sheppard. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Over the past two NCAA basketball seasons, representatives from the Washington Wizards maintained a great interest in a player based in Washington state. There was something about Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura. In Japan, he started as a baseball player before growing into a new sport and falling in love with Carmelo Anthony. But by college, he had impressed the Wizards with his skills as a scorer and, with a 7-foot-2 wing span, his ability to defend.

Washington watched him blossom into an all-American, and after years of stalking Hachimura, as interim president Tommy Sheppard would later joke, on Thursday night the Wizards chose Hachimura with the ninth pick in the NBA draft, making him the first Japanese-born player taken in the first round in league history.

“He’s somebody we’ve watched for the last couple of years. He’s a late bloomer. We think he’s got potential to be a tremendous two-way player,” a jubilant Sheppard said after his first pick as the leader of the draft process.

“We knew it was going to be him,” Sheppard said. “It was very close with a couple of players, but I think the fact of where he’s at in his potential and his trajectory, we felt great about it.”

Hachimura, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward from Toyama, Japan, played three years at Gonzaga and averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season as a junior. He also averaged 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks. Although he started as a catcher in his home country that adores baseball, Hachimura switched to basketball and tried to fashion his game after Anthony.

“He’s a big guy, but he can shoot. He’s quick,” Hachimura said. “I remember I liked watching him.”

Like his basketball idol, Hachimura thrives in the midrange and can handle the ball on the break — he likes to grab rebounds and push the tempo. But Hachimura didn’t take after Anthony, a notorious defensive liability, on the other end.

“I love the fact that I talked to Coach [Mark] Few this morning. He told me a few things that were very important to me as a coach that you want in a player,” Coach Scott Brooks said of a phone conversation he had with Gonzaga’s coach. “He works. He works every day. He said you’re never going to ever worry about him in that area. And he has the talent, and with that work ethic we feel we can have a really good two-way player. With our roster, obviously we have a lot of decisions to make. But he has a pretty good opportunity ahead of him. Like with all rookies and young players in this league, there’s a learning curve. We’re looking forward to meeting with him tomorrow and start that process right away.”

Although Hachimura did not visit Washington for a workout, the Wizards still locked in on him as their pick. Inside the Wizards’ draft room, Sheppard said he had to politely end a slew of phone calls from rival general managers. Sheppard suspected their intentions.

“We tried to trade back until you hear people are trying to trade up to get him ahead of us. There were several teams [in a] cat and mouse game,” Sheppard said. “There were a couple of teams in hot pursuit, but I think when we got the call, we kind of knew what they might be calling about. You say thank you and hang up, and we got our guy.”

Hachimura was named a consensus all-American and earned another lofty title during the ESPN telecast of the draft. Chauncey Billups, an analyst and former NBA champion, described Hachimura as a “young Kawhi Leonard.”

Though Hachimura may have an NBA-ready game, the comparison to a two-time NBA Finals MVP might be a bit extreme.

“I would think it’s unfair to manage that expectation for the kid. Let him do it himself,” said Sheppard, who also praised Hachimura’s maturity.

“He’s ready to play next year in terms of I don’t think there’s going to be remedial teaching that has to happen for him,” Sheppard said. “He can hit the court, but I think the expectations, we’re going to manage for him. But I think he’ll be able to contribute right away. He’s a fantastic person.”

Several years back, when Hachimura first appeared on the Wizards’ radar, Sheppard was the team’s senior vice president of basketball operations with a keen eye on international prospects. Sheppard’s global experience dates back to his days in public relations when he worked as a press attache for the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. As he moved into a front-office role with Washington, Sheppard often traveled overseas to take in EuroLeague and FIBA tournaments.

“He’s been speaking English for three years, but his basketball game is a universal language,” Sheppard said. “He plays well, and I think everybody is going to really enjoy watching him develop.”

Now Hachimura, who intends to be the face of basketball in Japan and play in the World Cup, becomes the Wizards’ latest international pick.

“It’s crazy. It’s unreal,” Hachimura said on ESPN after being selected. “It means a lot to me and all my family.”

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