03/20 18:21 CDT Rui Hachimura's popularity continuing to rise at Gonzaga
Rui Hachimura's popularity continuing to rise at Gonzaga
By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) --- Rui Hachimura leaned against a wall inside Las Vegas'
Orleans Arena, towering above the boom microphones and cameras being held by
the reporters below.
The Gonzaga big man patiently answered questions in Japanese for more than 15
minutes from the nearly two dozen reporters, including one who raised his hand
and bowed after Hachimura gave him a thoughtful answer.
Hachimura is used to the attention by now. Whether it's back in his homeland of
Japan or after a loss in the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas,
Hachimura always draws plenty of attention.
"I don't mind it," he said Wednesday in Salt Lake City as another group of
Japanese reporters waited to ask questions. "But they do ask a lot of the same
Hachimura has developed a huge following in Japan and in the United States from
fans who have followed his rise from phenom to one of college basketball's best
Raw when he arrived at Gonzaga in 2016, Hachimura has developed into a possible
NBA lottery pick as the Zags prepare to face No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in
the NCAA Tournament West Region on Thursday.
Hachimura became popular when he played for Japan's national youth teams and
that popularity has grown exponentially as he has become the best player on one
of American college basketball's premier programs. Hachimura has put himself in
position to become the third Japanese player to reach the NBA, joining Memphis
Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe and Yuta Tabuse, who played four games for the
Phoenix Suns 14 years ago.
"I do get noticed a lot, but I kind of get used to it," Hachimura said. "And
it's an important time in national Japanese basketball history, so I'm fine
Hachimura was a baseball player when he was younger, in part because the sport
is so big in his home country, but also because he was just 5-foot-5.
Once he sprouted and reluctantly tried basketball to stop a friend's nagging at
13, Hachimura made a steady climb to stardom.
A 6-foot-8 forward, he drew international attention at the 2014 U-17 World
Championships when he averaged 22.6 points and scored 25 against a U.S. team
that featured future NBA players Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Josh Jackson.
Hachimura also caught the attention of Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who
had a knack for bringing talented international players to Spokane, Washington.
Hachimura struggled when he first arrived at Gonzaga, with the American game,
the culture and, particularly, the language.
"He was absorbing about 10 percent of what we were telling him," Gonzaga coach
Mark Few said.
Hachimura worked hard on the language --- with the help of Zags video
coordinator Ken Nakagawa --- and his game, becoming proficient at both.
The Japanese big man was a role player when Gonzaga reached its first national
title game in 2017 and became a more important cog last season, averaging 11.6
points on a team filled with veteran players.
Hachimura made a big jump as a junior, boosting his scoring average to 20.1
points while shooting 62 points and grabbing 6.6 rebounds. He has the size to
play down low, developed a superb midrange jumper and improved his 3-point
shooting to 47 percent this season.
Hachimura's steady improvement can be tied to him becoming more aggressive.
When Hachimura first arrived at Gonzaga, he was passive on the court, deferring
to older teammates and getting pushed around by more aggressive opponents. At
the constant urgings of his coaches, Hachimura became much more assertive and
willing to take over games, as he did by making the decisive plays down the
stretch in Gonzaga's win over Duke in the Maui Invitational title game.
"When he got here, it's very much within the cultural norms to defer to people
that are older than you, who have been here a while or they have seniority on
you," Few said. "We've had to get him to kind of work through that."
It's certainly paid off.
With Hachimura leading the way, Gonzaga is a favorite to reach its second Final
Four in three years.
Pull it off and the attention on Hachimura will only intensify --- and he's
fine with that.
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