Rui Hachimura dunks during Japan’s preliminary-round basketball game against Slovenia at the 2020 Summer Olympics last July in Tokyo. (Kyodo Photo)

By MARK KAZUO ROBBINS, Special to The Rafu

Rui Hachimura will visit Arena for the first time this season on Wednesday, as his Washington Wizards square off with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Hachimura’s appearance will coincide with the Clippers’ annual Japanese Heritage Night, featuring activities to honor Japanese culture.

It’s a fitting juncture to stop and reflect on the 24-year-old forward’s basketball career to date. In his third season with the Wizards, Hachimura has had a highly promising — if not yet exceptional — NBA career. Still, his place among the most influential figures in the history of the global game is already secure.

For American basketball fans like myself, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assessing Hachimura through an NBA-centric lens. This is, of course, the pre-eminent basketball league in the world and still where all the top talent comes to compete.

How did Hachimura perform statistically on a given night? Where does he fit in the Wizards’ rotation and vision for the future? Will he become an all-star caliber player? These questions make interesting fodder for NBA fans, but miss the mark on capturing Hachimura’s true impact.

One must look back, perhaps, to China’s Yao Ming for a player who has made such a profound impression on their home country. In an eight-year career with the Houston Rockets (cut short by a series of foot and ankle injuries), the 7-foot-6 giant helped the game’s popularity grow exponentially in the world’s most populous nation.

Hachimura has played a similar role for Japan. In a country where baseball, sumo, and soccer have been the favorite sports, basketball’s popularity is on the rise with Hachimura the face of the game.

Japan saw Hachimura become the first Japanese player ever selected in Round One of the NBA draft in 2019. Forty-six members of the Japanese media covered the draft ceremony, more than for any other non-U.S. country.

Afterwards, the Nikkan Sports newspaper’s headline exclaimed, “The Birth of the NBA’s Hachimura, a Huge Step for Japan.”

That year, Hachimura’s No. 8 jersey became the best seller in his home country, topping established stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Purchases for Hachimura’s jerseys alone accounted for 24% of the overall market in Japan.

Then the Tokyo 2020 Olympics launched Hachimura into the stratosphere.

Hachimura made a towering flag-bearer for the host country during the Olympic opening ceremony. On the court, Japan’s national basketball team might have finished near the bottom of the Olympic field, but Hachimura’s dazzling plays filled the highlight reels.

With slick post footwork, a potent scoring touch, and thunderous assaults on the rim — including a memorable dunk over the Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner in Japan’s matchup with the U.S. — Hachimura was not only Japan’s leading scorer (22.3 points per game), he was fourth among all scorers at the games.

Japan’s upset victory over powerhouse France in exhibition play was perhaps the high water mark in the country’s basketball history.

Exploits like these helped transform Hachimura into a celebrity in Japan. Along with juggernauts Shohei Ohtani (baseball) and Naomi Osaka (tennis), Hachimura became one of the nation’s most popular athletes. His face and voice are now well recognized by Japanese television audiences.

Three years ago, the forward inked an endorsement deal with Nissin for his own curry-flavored Cup Noodles. The sight of Hachimura’s beaming likeness on the product’s packaging recalls Michael Jordan’s Wheaties cereal campaign of the 1980s and ’90s.

With all the international attention and Hachimura’s reputation as a groundbreaker, there’s no wonder the expectations around his NBA performance have been lofty. His chiseled 6-foot-8, 230 pound frame and 7-foot-2 wingspan have also had some seeing a younger version of the Clippers’ franchise player Kawhi Leonard.

Such a comparison, though, remains premature as Hachimura continues to develop and has yet to excel on the defensive end of the floor—where Leonard earned his stripes.

Still, there is every reason to believe Hachimura has the tools to become an elite NBA player. Named to the league’s All-Rookie second team for his efforts, Hachimura has proven to be a savvy mid-range scorer and an explosive finisher, with averages of 13.5 and 13.8 points a game in his first two seasons and a field goal percentage over 47%.

After a slower start to his 2021-22 campaign, in which the forward missed the first half of the season for undisclosed personal reasons, there are signs Hachimura is rounding into form. He posted a team high 20 points in a Feb. 17 win over the New Jersey Nets. In a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 4, Hachimura tallied 19 points, on 7-10 from the field and 3-4 from three-point range, to go along with six rebounds.

This season, Hachimura has added three-point accuracy to his offensive arsenal, converting on a scalding 54% from deep over his first 22 games.

As the Wizards adjust to a revamped roster and a season-ending injury to their number one scoring option Bradley Beal, the team would surely welcome a larger contribution from Hachimura to stay in the playoff race.

Perhaps the current circumstances will create the opening Hachimura needs to elevate his game to a new plateau. But, while many of us would relish seeing Hachimura reach his full potential as an NBA star, we should not forget he’s already helped introduce the game to millions of new fans.

It’s all gravy (or curry) from here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *