Japan hails Hachimura pick as new era for sport

TOKYO — Japanese basketball officials, fans and media hailed the selection of Rui Hachimura in the 2019 NBA draft, saying the move will usher in a new era for the sport in Japan.

Hachimura became the first player from Japan to be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, taken with the No. 9 overall pick by the rebuilding Washington Wizards on Thursday.

“The Birth of the NBA’s Hachimura, a huge step for Japan,” read the headline in the Nikkansports newspaper’s online edition.

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward averaged a team-leading 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season as a junior at Gonzaga, where he was the West Coast Conference player of the year.

The only other Japanese player drafted in NBA history was Yasutaka Okayama, who went 171st overall in 1981. He never appeared in a regular-season game, something just two players from the country have done: Yuta Tabuse for the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05, and Yuta Watanabe for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19.

“The fact that Hachimura, a product of the Japanese basketball system, has been selected in the NBA draft makes us very proud,” the Japan Basketball Federation’s Yuko Mitsuya said.

While it has grown in popularity with the introduction of a pro league in 2005, basketball still lags far behind baseball and soccer in Japan.

Hachimura’s NBA career is sure to help the sport grow in leaps and bounds.

The son of a Japanese mother and father from the Republic of Benin, Hachimura is the latest Japanese pro of mixed race to make a splash in the sporting world, following the likes of Naomi Osaka and Yu Darvish.

“This is a huge step forward for Japan,” said Keisuke Tsutsumi, an office worker who follows the NBA. “It will take the sport to a new level here.”

Hachimura’s junior high school coach, Joji Sakamoto, welcomed the news of his draft selection.

Sakamoto coached Hachimura in his native Toyama Prefecture and said he saw potential in his student from a young age.

“I told him to visualize his dream, and now it will be a reality,” the 59-year-old Sakamoto said.

Japan’s education minister, Masahiko Shibayama, said Hachimura had given hope to a generation of young players in his home country.

“It’s really wonderful,” Shibayama said. “By taking a prominent role in a league that is difficult for Japanese players to enter, he will give hope to many Japanese people.”

Hachimura’s rise couldn’t come at a better time, with Tokyo building to host the 2020 Olympics. Japan’s national men’s team has qualified as host country, and Hachimura could play a leading role at both the Olympics and the World Cup in China later this year.

Wizards interim general manager Tommy Sheppard mentioned the 21-year-old’s play for Japan’s national team.

“For Japan to qualify for the world championships, he’s the focal point. And when the [Tokyo] Olympics come in 2020, he’s going to be the focal point of that country on that basketball team,” Sheppard said. “To be able to shoulder that load at his age — the maturity he has — I think that’s going to bode well for him in the NBA.”

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