Looking dashing in suit and tie, Rui Hachimura stepped up to the stage with a bright smile, greeting the legendary basketball player, Julius Erving. Erving had just announced that Hachimura had won the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, and was asked by the ESPN announcer how it felt to shake Erving’s hand.

Hachimura replied without missing a beat – “His hand is very big.”

The announcer laughed. The audience laughed. And Hachimura beamed as he looked at the award in front of him.

This is the confidence of a young man who is about to become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft on June 20, 2019.

Only three years earlier, that confidence was not so apparent.

Rui Hachimura high school Rui Hachimura competes during the All-Japan Tournament in late December. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Born of a mother from Japan and a father from Benin, a nation in West Africa, Hachimura grew up in Toyama, a relatively lightly populated part of Western Japan. In a culture where the phrase, the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is often thought or heard, Hachimura, due to his size, his skin color and his hair, stuck out.

“My family was the only blacks in our prefecture,” Hachimura said in this CBS article. “A lot of people looked at me weird. They’d never seen black people before.”

Although baseball is Hachimura’s first love, he found that basketball and its constant movement and flow allowed him to leverage his boundless energy and athleticism. A star on the Meisei High School team in Sendai, Hachimura took his team to three straight All Japan high school tournament titles. At an appearance at the 2014 FIBA U17 in Dubai, the then 16-year-old Hachimura caught the eye of basketball scouts, including the assistant coach at Gonzaga University, Tommy Lloyd.

“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said in The Spokesman-Review. “A lot of great tools.”

Rui Hachimura and Tommy Lloyd Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd,(Photo: Young Kwak, AP)

Major college programs wanted Hachimura – Arizona, LSU, Vanderbilt and my hometown team St. John’s. But in the end, Lloyd helped convinced Hachimura to come to Gonzaga, which houses a powerful NCAA Division 1 basketball team made up in good part by players outside of America.

“I like that this program has teammates and coaches who are like family,” Hachimura said in The Gonzaga Bulletin. “I knew there were a lot of international players playing here and they know the process of developing international players.”

The 18-year old moved to Washington State in America in early 2016 and he had significant challenges. Hachimura had never lived overseas. He had been to the US only once. He spoke very little English. His first task was to become eligible to even enter Gonzaga as his acceptance was dependent on passing the SAT test, the most common aptitude test used by universities and colleges in America. After several attempts, Hachimura scored well enough to satisfy Gonzaga in May, 2016, and announced that he would move to the United States to enter Gonzaga’s English Language Center that month, according to the Japan Times.

With hopes of playing as a freshman in the 2016-2017 season, Hachimura had to improve his English so he could at least understand instructions from coaches and talk to teammates. As a result, he had to miss 50% of the team’s practices so he could attend Gonzaga’s English language program.

In the early stages, it didn’t appear the language lessons were working, as explained in late 2017 by Coach Mark Few in The Gonzaga Bullettin.

He’s a professional at nodding and acting like he knows. Then when you pin him down he has no idea. So I’ve been trying to pin him down a lot to make sure, because we have to make sure. But he’s getting better inch by inch.

Rui Hachimura u17 Team Japan Rui Hachimura in 2014 FIBA 2017 World Championship in Dubai – Canada vs Japan, Day 2, Group phase

Hachimura was also adjusting to the faster, more aggressive level of play in America, according to Few.

He’s pretty laid back. At his size, he needs to be a physical entity… that’s tough to match up with and tough to block out… he’s just got to get a little more intense.

Or as Lloyd remarked more succinctly, “Early on, he looked like Tarzan, but sometimes was playing like Jane.”

Today, Hachimura is definitely playing like Tarzan, and will become not only a potential piece in an NBA team’s success in 2019, but a potential marketing bonanza for Hachimura, particularly in his native Japan. Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said that Hachimura’s impending draft selection is big news in Japan.

All of Japan finds it so exciting. Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball. It would be really huge news. When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.

And after an NBA season under his belt, who knows what Hachimura can accomplish as a member of Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Zion Williamson and Rui Hachimura Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura (right) defends against Duke’s Zion Williamson in the final of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday. | KYODO

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.

NCAA Ohio St Gonzaga Basketball Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura dunks during the second half of last weekend’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Ohio State in Boise, Idaho. The Bulldogs are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season – the only program in the nation that has done that. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

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.