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Wizards’ Rui Hachimura is the NBA rookie with the biggest following

How is the Japanese-born star handling pressure of representing his country?

LAS VEGAS — The media horde was focused squarely on the heralded NBA draft pick, writing notes, taking pictures and filming his every move as if no other players were in the gym.

But, no, the attention wasn’t for Zion Williamson, the top pick in the 2019 NBA draft, but rather Washington Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura, who had 61 credentialed Japanese media members from 21 different outlets tracking his every move at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League.

Yes, summer league.

(There were at least 15 media members solely covering him at the Wizards’ summer league practice July 6. Not a game. Practice.)

“I am used to it now, especially after the draft. It was crazy talking English and Japanese back and forth. But I have gotten used to it,” Hachimura told The Undefeated. “One of my jobs is to represent Japan. People want to see me right now. I’m everywhere right now in Japan on TV, newspapers. I am doing it for my country and the little kids watching me.”

Seeing a large Japanese media contingent following baseball players in America has been commonplace for a while. Major league baseball stars past and present, from Hideo Nomo to Ichiro Suzuki to Hideki Matsui to Yu Darvish to Shohei Ohtani, have primarily answered questions from the North American media in English through a translator and then in Japanese with their native media. That won’t be the case for Hachimura.

Hachimura learned to speak fluent English while at Gonzaga, primarily by listening to rap songs, watching Netflix, playing video games and talking to his teammates.

Rui Hachimura was surrounded daily by Japanese media during summer league. John Locher/AP Photo

“The difference is I don’t use a translator,” Hachimura said. “But it’s good for me because I learned the language and speak English and Japanese too. It makes me smart because it strains on my brain.”

Former Phoenix Suns guard Yuta Tabuse, who played in four career NBA games, and current Memphis Grizzlies guard Yuta Watanabe have also received attention from Japanese media. Former Denver Nuggets head coach Jeff Bzdelik recalled getting grilled by Japanese media daily about Tabuse during his short stint with the team during 2003 training camp.

“They are extremely passionate about their own countrymen,” Bzdelik said. “I’d refer all questions about why he wasn’t playing to [then-Nuggets general manager] Kiki [VanDeWeghe]. They want so badly to have someone make it for them.”

Hachimura averaged a team-best 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds for Gonzaga last season as a junior, earning the 2019 West Coast Conference Player of the Year award and a consensus first-team All-America selection. Selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Hachimura, proudly wearing a Japan flag on his suit jacket, became the first Japanese player to be selected in the first round.

“Rui is huge right now,” Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said. “He has television cameras following him everywhere. He’s just not on the sports news, but he is even on the news in Japan during the daytime at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock when only housewives are watching TV. I think most of Japan knows who he is.

“When you open the newspaper in Japan, he is there all the time now. Before, only sports fans knew of him. Everybody knows Ichiro and Ohtani. Now Hachimura, everybody knows.”

What has made Hachimura a media sensation in Japan is that he has a chance to be their first NBA star. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of that is Hachimura is of mixed racial identity, something that wasn’t always embraced in Japan. His mother is Japanese and his father is from Benin in West Africa.

Yamawaki told The Undefeated that it was not long ago that Japanese natives were not welcoming to biracial athletes. That began to change in recent years, however, as Japan has had its share of biracial sports stars, such as tennis champion Naomi Osaka, Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish, sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Olympic hammer throw gold medalist Koji Murofushi.

“Probably before, six years ago, it was different,” Yamawaki said. “Now they are accepting of everything. Japanese people are proud of them.”

“One of my jobs is to represent Japan. People want to see me right now. I’m everywhere right now in Japan on TV, newspapers. I am doing it for my country and the little kids watching me.” — Rui Hachimura

Hachimura previously told The Undefeated that he hopes to inspire not only young basketball players in Japan but also kids of mixed race struggling with racism, discrimination and identity issues. Wearing an NBA uniform certainly will give him a bigger platform.

“I definitely want to help them. I don’t know how I am going to do it. But I am so excited to have a camp or something like that back home, and here too,” Hachimura said. “There are a lot of Japanese American kids here, and I think I can help them kids too.”

Yamawaki expects 50 to 60 Japanese media to be credentialed for Hachimura’s first Wizards regular-season game and several media companies to follow him daily next season. Wizards acting general manager Tommy Sheppard, who worked with the Nuggets when Tabuse was there, says the Japanese media has been very respectful of Hachimura so far.

“He has been around a long time in this environment and is very, very comfortable in it, so we kind of take our cues from him,” Sheppard said. “Our biggest thing is to give him what he needs to be successful on the court and off the court. We are always constantly checking with him. He’s comfortable with the way things are. Our players are really impressed with his maturity and his ability to block out any distraction.”

Sheppard said the Wizards drafted Hachimura because he has “great potential.” The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward impressed during summer league, averaging 19.3 points and 7 rebounds in three games.

“He’s good, solid and composed for a young player,” said Wizards assistant coach Robert Pack, who played 13 seasons in the NBA. “He takes his time, has a good feel for it. He hasn’t played a lot of basketball, but he competes and plays hard. He plays within himself.”

Hachimura will face pressure that’s unlike what most NBA rookies will experience next season. Answering questions separately for the North American and Japanese media will be a daily occurrence for him. He has already landed endorsement deals with Jordan Brand and Nissin Foods, which makes Cup Noodles, and said he has more on the horizon. Meanwhile, the spotlight will be on him later this summer when he suits up for Japan at the World Cup in China. But for this 21-year-old, who grew up in the social media age, all this attention is just part of his world.

“It has been like this since I was a kid. It’s not like a big deal for me,” Hachimura said. “I want to be the face of Japanese athletes. That is why I have to do it.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.