There was talk about UNC forward Nassir Little being the Washington Wizards’ pick. He impressed the team during a workout in D.C.
Cam Reddish, the Duke forward with limitless potential, was on the board, too. Sekou Doumbouya, an intriguing French prospect with measurements that jump off the screen, sat near Reddish, also waiting to hear his name get called.
But with the ninth pick, the Wizards went with Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura — becoming the first Japanese-born player selected by an NBA team.
The pick came as a surprise — both to fans, and Hachimura’s camp.
“Everybody was talking about 11, 12, 15, 18 — but not 9,” said Tomoya Higashino, an executive with the Japanese Basketball Association.
Higashino, who’s known Hachimura since the new Wizard was just in high school, believes that Washington is arguably the best fit for the forward.
For Hachimura, it was important to begin his career in a city that values diversity — a city that would embrace his culture like D.C.
The Wizards didn’t bring Hachimura in for a work out or hold a formal interview, but they were in constant contact with his camp throughout the development of his career.
“He’s a fantastic person,” said Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ interim general manager.
We spent some time talking over the phone in the past and I’ve been to his workouts. I’ve stalked him for years, watching him the last two years playing. That stuff he did in FIBA ball is very impressive. For Japan to qualify for the World Championships, he’s the focal point. When the Olympics come in 2020, he’s going to be the focal point of that country and that basketball team. To be able to shoulder that load at his age, the maturity that he has, that will bode well for him in the NBA.”
Washington’s front office spoke to members of Hachimura’s camp to learn more about the 21 year old’s personality and what he was like off the court — and the more they learned, the more enamored they became.
“He works hard every day,” Higashino said. “He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He brings good culture to the Washington Wizards. That’s going to make a difference.”
Hachimura has the intangibles — his quiet demeanor has caused pundits like Chauncey Billups to compare him to Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard. But on the court, the Wizards thinks he could be an instant difference-maker.
“We knew it was going to be him,” Sheppard said.
It was very close with a couple of players, but I think the fact of where he is at with his potential and his trajectory, we felt great about him. He’s ready to play next year. I don’t think there is going to be remedial teaching that is going to have to happen for him. I think he can hit the court, but I think the expectations we are going to manage for him. I think he’ll be able to contribute right away.”
Hachimura has the size to play two — maybe even three — positions. At 6-foot-8, Hachimura provides spacing at the four, but he’s also shown an ability to create shots for himself. Growing up, Hachimura watched how Carmelo Anthony picked defenders apart one-on-one, and tried to mimic his style.
Scoring isn’t the only thing he brings to the table, though. Hachimura prides himself on playing hard — on getting stops, and being versatile.
“I think I can play defense,” Hachimura said after being selected by the Wizards. “Both sides, defense and offense. I think I can impact the game. I can get rebounds and push the ball. I can shoot. I can pass. I think I can help the team a lot.”
Washington has lacked a forward who’s capable of rebounding the ball and initiating offense — something Wizards head coach Scott Brooks thinks Hachimura will be able to do as a pro.
“You need a lot of playmakers,” Brooks said. “We’ve done a pretty good job the last few years of moving the ball and passing the ball. [Our] assists have always been up there. Adding a bigger player that can make those decisions is critical to every team’s offense.
He has the ability to get rebounds and push the ball up the court. We don’t have to rely on our backcourt to do all the ball handling and the playmaking, but he has that [ability]. Like I said, there’s always a learning curve, but I’m looking forward to seeing where he is right now with our staff. He definitely has the potential and the defensive tools to be a good defender and a good rebounder [and a] guy that can push the guys start to break.”
At 21, Hachimura isn’t a project prospect — he’s someone who the Wizards view as a day-one contributor. Washington knew they weren’t the only ones eyeing Hachimura — the San Antonio Spurs were high on him too — so they didn’t want to take risks by letting him potentially slip into the hands of another team.
“He’s going to help the program,” Brooks said. “He’s going to come in and be a guy that is coachable. Like I said, I talked to [his] coach earlier [and he said] you’re never going to have a problem with him.
He has a lot of respect for the game and how he prepares. Yeah, he does have some maturity. He’s experienced a lot. He’s the first first-rounder born in Japan. As you saw on the interview stage, the excitement you saw in his smile was pretty cool to see. I love that about him. I love that he loves the game. You can just see it through his smile.”
Having missed the playoffs this past season and with John Wall out for possibly the entire 2019-20 campaign, Hachimura understands that he’s entering a unique situation in Washington — a not-so-ideal scenario that might result in frustrating losses, and growing pains.
Still — Hachimura has high hopes for the Wizards. And like the lottery picks that came before him, Hachimura wants to end the decades-long championship drought in the nation’s capital.
“First of all, I want to play in the playoffs,” Hachimura said. “Of course, I want to help the team. I want a championship. I think that’s the one thing I want to accomplish here.”