“I talked to him [and asked], how does the NBA look, especially for Japanese people,” Hachimura said. “It’s a different culture and lifestyle. So I asked him a lot of things. He helped me, too.”
Along with Hachimura’s learning environment at Gonzaga — the competition against in-house rival and friend Clarke was part of the process — Watanabe’s long-distance advice helped lay the groundwork for what has been a promising rookie season.
On Saturday night in Memphis, Hachimura reunited with Clarke and Watanabe, both of whom play for the Grizzlies, for the first time in a regular season matchup, a 128-111 Wizards loss.
“I’m just so proud of him, what he’s been doing,” Watanabe said. “That’s unbelievable. Sometimes I forget that he’s a rookie in the NBA. He plays like a vet, and he plays comfortable out there. I’m very proud of him.”
During pregame warmups, Watanabe walked over to Hachimura, surprising him by grabbing his shoulders. The moment was captured by a Wizards’ social media manager, and the tweet garnered more than 10,000 likes. Just about everything the two do on the court goes viral.
As the two Japanese representatives in the NBA (another countryman, Yudai Baba, signed a nonguaranteed contract with the Dallas Mavericks and plays in the G League), Hachimura and Watanabe deal with more intense media attention than the average rising player.
While at George Washington, Watanabe was anointed “The Chosen One” by a Japanese outlet. Though Watanabe played the majority of his rookie season in the G League, thanks to his presence, the Grizzlies ranked third behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors in merchandise sold in Japan. He logged seven minutes Saturday, grabbing three rebounds but scoring zero points in just his fourth NBA appearance this season.
Hachimura, now the face of Japanese basketball, has experienced far greater popularity. Four to six Japanese reporters covered every Gonzaga game in Spokane, Wash., and Gonzaga basketball once hosted a Japanese media day for 22 reporters, according to a team official. Saturday’s reunion of Hachimura and Watanabe, though, brought a typical crowd of about eight Japanese reporters.
“He’s always had a really big following, and he’s always done a really good job with that, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger since he’s got to the league,” Clarke said. “So it’s just cool seeing it get bigger and him doing so well with it.”
Though they share similar experiences, Watanabe had the perspective to share during conversations with Hachimura last year. Watanabe offered sobering truths about his own journey — “Not going to lie. It’s been very tough. Especially this year, I haven’t played much yet in the NBA,” he said. He also gave Hachimura insight into the league’s grueling schedule and travel.
“I think he was asking about how hard [the NBA would be] and what’s the difference between college and the NBA and stuff like that,” said Watanabe, who swapped jerseys with Hachimura after Saturday’s game. “I was giving him advice as much as I can.”
While Watanabe was offering words, Clarke, a redshirt junior last year at Gonzaga, was helping prepare Hachimura in other ways.
“Him and me were kind of rivals but good friends,” Hachimura said. “We always compete.”
The teammates would battle for the title of best shooter and best dunker.
“I would say he won the shooting ones,” Clarke recalled, “and I won the dunking ones back in the day.”
On Saturday night, Clarke made sure to maintain dunking supremacy over Hachimura.
Because the game already was underway when Hachimura and Clarke met up, their reunion was much more understated than Watanabe’s shoulder hug. In the first quarter, Hachimura saw Clarke standing at the scorers’ table ready to check in and threw a wink his way. Then, Clarke, on his way to 25 points, completed five of his six dunks while Hachimura was on the floor, including a one-handed hammer over Wizards center Ian Mahinmi.
“It kind of feels weird,” Hachimura, who scored 10 points in 29 minutes, said about playing against Clarke. “I was a good friend with him. I spent time in college with him, two years, and he’s a very good guy. . . . Now we’re in the same stage, the NBA, playing against each other. It’s pretty cool, yeah.”
Clarke said he was “extra, extra locked in” for the game because he would be playing against Hachimura. Still, the friendly rivalry did not get in the way of how he views Hachimura’s rookie season.
“Exciting isn’t really a word for it,” Clarke said. “First of all, I’m super, super proud of him just to be here. Playing with him was just so much fun because he was such a great player and great teammate.”