It was November 22, 2018 and Gonzaga was challenging #1 Duke for the Maui Invitational Title Game early in the 2018-2019 NCAA men’s basketball season.
Arguably the best young talent in basketball were Duke Blue Devils, the perennial powerhouse in the NCAA. In fact, two of the top three lottery draft picks in the upcoming NBA draft will likely be from Duke – freshmen Zion Williamson and R J Barrett.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, which was number 3 in the nation at the time, stormed out to a 14-point lead at halftime. But Duke fought back coming to within 1 with 3 and a half minutes left. That’s when Japanese forward, Rui Hachimura, made big plays on both the offensive and defensive ends to hold the fort – driving and dishing. When Duke tied the game, Hachimura barreled his way to the basket past Barrett for his 20th point to reclaim the lead 89-87 with only 1 minute and 13 seconds left in the game.
Duke desperately tried to tie the game, driving the lane. But the Bulldog defense was stalwart, with Hachimura adding a lunging block of a Barrett jumper with the game clock ticking away. Despite four missed free throws, Gonzaga’s defense held stiff. When Hachimura grabbed the final rebound, Gonzaga had topped the mighty Duke.
In the sixth game of his junior year, Rui Hachimura, the native of Toyama, Japan, showed that he could put his team on his shoulders. Hachimura went on to average 20 points and 7 rebounds per game in leading Gonzaga to an undefeated conference season and to the Elite Eight in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, losing to a very strong Texas Tech.
A week after the tournament, Hachimura made a historic decision – to skip his senior year at Gonzaga and enter the NBA draft, with the very high possibility of a vaunted first round pick when the NBA holds the draft on June 20, 2019.
Prognosticators have the 2.05 meter tall forward going as high as number 4, behind Duke’s Williamson (#1) and Barrett (#3), to somewhere in the mid teens. Either way, Hachimura will be the first Japanese to be drafted in the first round. Hachimura is an athletic, physical player who scouts say will create challenging match ups for opponents as he can play either small or power forward, as explained on NBA.com.
Play him at small forward and he can take his man to the block and spin-off him with masterful footwork for a layup. Play him at power forward and let him work on slower players in space where he can either blow by with a lightning-quick first step or create room with a side step to showcase his silky mid-range jump shot. Utilize him off the ball and he can punish sleeping help defender with intelligent cuts resulting in uncontested dunks.
Hachimura has shown great growth, particularly in his outside shooting. While he consistently hit over 50% of his field goals, he more than doubled his accuracy in 3-point shooting, improving from 19.2% to 41.7% from his sophomore to his junior year. Still critics find the sample size small and wonder if he can continue to get open and convert in the pros where the 3-point shot is about half a meter further out, and the defense on the perimeter is more aggressive.
Hachimura has won fans with his transition games, his rugged protection of the rim and his bursts to the basket with authoritative dunks, as well as his bright smile and humble demeanor. On June 20, he will be crowned as Japan’s greatest basketball player with selection into the NBA as a first-round pick.