Japan's Rui Hachimura walks toward an interview after the Washington Wizards selected him as the ninth pick Thursday night in the NBA draft. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

The Japanese basketball community erupted in excitement Friday as Rui Hachimura became the first person from that country to be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft.

Tributes flew in from current and former players, sports stars and other celebrities for Hachimura, 21, who was chosen with the No. 9 overall pick by the Washington Wizards in New York, where it was Thursday night.  

“Rui is just a huge game-changer,” said Chris Sasaki, a basketball analyst and former player in a Japanese pro league. “It's beyond imagination. It's almost like Columbus finding the continent of America or putting human beings on the moon for us.”

The only other Japanese player drafted in NBA history was Yasutaka Okayama, who was picked 171st overall in 1981 but never made a regular-season appearance. Only two Japanese players have ever appeared in regular season, Yuta Tabuse for the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05 and Yuta Watanabe, who made his debut for the Memphis Grizzlies this past season, apearing in 15 games as a reserve.

Tabuse told Nikkan Sports it was a “near miracle,” while Watanabe — a former star at George Washington University — also sent his congratulations.

“This will be extremely significant for Japan’s basketball world, and will mean a lot to the World Cup this summer and the Olympics here next year,” he said in a statement, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “Looking at you play so well gives me motivation, and I hope we both continue to work hard to improve ourselves.” 

John E. Gibson, a sports editor for Japan News, said Hachimura — who played three seasons at Gonzaga University — had been projected to become an NBA player for several years, but exceeded expectations by becoming such a high pick.

Sasaki grew up dreaming of becoming an NBA player himself but said people would look at him “in a weird way” and never believe it was possible for someone from Japan. To see Hachimura realize that dream was “very surreal,” he said.

“This just paradigm shift,” he said. “Now so many boys and I think girls would think as the NBA or WNBA a realistic goal that they can aspire to.”

Hachimura, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, was born in Japan’s Toyama prefecture to a Japanese mother and a father from Benin. 

He is the latest mixed-race role model to make a splash in Japanese sports, after Naomi Osaka — ranked No. 1 in the world in women’s tennis — and Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, who set a Japanese national record in the men’s 100 meters while competing for the University of Florida at the 2019 NCAA championships.

Their rise may help challenge Japan’s tepid acceptance of mixed-race people as truly Japanese. But Gibson said Hachimura might be less a role model for young children than the 5-foot-9 Tabuse had been, “not because he's biracial, but because of his physical makeup — he's very unlike a typical Japanese player who's probably not as tall and not as physically developed.”

Hachimura grew up speaking Japanese and only started speaking English when he went to Washington state three years ago to play for the Bulldogs. As a junior, Hachimura averaged 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds this past season, as well as 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks. Gibson said it would be a “huge leap” for him to join the NBA, but said he had the ability to develop into a “big contributor” over the next two to three years.

 He started as a baseball catcher before switching to basketball at 13, and Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ interim general manager, stressed his potential as a “late bloomer.” Sheppard also stressed Hachimura’s maturity, playing as the focal point for the Japanese national team at the age of 21.

Sasaki agreed, saying Hachimura’s work ethic and humility would make him suited to play for Wizards Coach Scott Brooks. 

Tabuse, the first Japanese player to play in the NBA, warned that Hachimura would face a lot of pressure in a competitive world, where players can be abruptly dropped, fired or traded at a moment’s notice. “There is no time for feeling let down,” he told Nikkan Sports. “Unless you immediately start looking for where you go next, other players will get ahead of you.”

Sasaki said the weight of national expectation would only add to that pressure.

“Japanese fans and people kind of envision him as the savior of the Japanese basketball team. This is so much pressure to put on a single young man,” he said. “But he’s mature enough to handle that pressure, but also shine bright when the pressure is strong.” 

Sasaki cited the way Hachimura had helped turn around the fortunes of the national team when it lost four World Cup qualifiers in a row and looked to be crashing out of the tournament.

The popularity of basketball took off here in the 1990s in the era of Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, but has never quite managed to build on that success. 

There are more than 600,000 registered players in the country, putting it second only to soccer by participation rates, but the sport doesn’t have a popular following to match, with baseball much more of a national obsession.

Sasaki, though, said the “stars were lining up” for Japanese basketball, with the country’s two main professional leagues merging to form the B. League in 2016, the men’s team qualifying for the World Cup, and both men’s and women’s teams competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the host nation. 

On Friday, Japanese baseball stars also joined in the celebration of Hachimura’s success.

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels called the news “simply extraordinary,” according to ToSpo sports newspaper, while Ichiro Suzuki, who recently announced his retirement after a legendary career in Japan and the United States, sent his best wishes to the “pioneer” Hachimura.

“There is no second person unless there is the first person,” he told the Sponichi sports newspaper and website. “It is pretty hard to become that first person. . . . it is hard to get from zero to one. I hope he will do his utmost.” 

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.