Rui Hachimura decided to spurn the NBA — at least for another year — when he elected not to go through the draft process this past offseason despite being projected as a potential lottery pick.
The 6'8" forward — whose mom is Japanese and dad is from the African nation of Benin — was raised in Toyoma, Japan. Hachimura spoke to Athlon Sports about why he decided to return to Gonzaga for his junior campaign, divulged his biggest fears and also how he was persuaded to take up basketball.
You can become the second Japanese native to play in the NBA, along with Yuta Tabuse, who played for the Suns in 2004. What would that mean to you?
Of course that’s the goal, to play in the NBA. But I don’t want to get there and not be ready to stay in the NBA. I want to play a long time, 10 years or whatever. If I do go to the NBA next year, I think it’ll be crazy in Japan.
You didn’t test the NBA Draft process this year even though you were projected as a first-rounder, maybe a lottery pick. What went into that decision?
One of the main reasons is because I want to have a long-term career in the NBA. The goal is for me to be ready once I get there. I want to work on my 3s, my rebounding and my defense this year. I just want to be ready once I get there, and I thought that this year would help me become more prepared.
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What was the biggest adjustment coming over from Japan?
Mentally. Here, they train for basketball from when you are young. In Japan, we aren’t crazy about basketball like they are here.
So many international guys try and go straight to the NBA. Why did you decide to go to college?
I knew I had to learn English. I thought this was the best move for me to go to college and play basketball.
What’s your hometown of Toyama like?
It’s a small city. It’s about the same distance to Tokyo as it is from Spokane to Seattle.
If it’s not a huge basketball country, how did you get into the sport?
I didn’t start playing until I was 12 or 13. I was going into junior high school, and I didn’t want to play baseball anymore. One of my teammates who was in my classes told me every morning to play basketball. I didn’t even think about it. I kept telling him no, but he was so annoying that finally I told him I’d go one time. I went and the coach told me I could play in the NBA. He was acting like I was on the team already, so I couldn’t really say no. I was terrible back then, though. I learned how to play watching YouTube videos of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins.
How was your English when you got here a couple years ago?
Not very good at all. I watched TV shows, talked to my friends, teammates and coaches to learn. I’m still learning, but I’ve gotten much better. One of the shows I watched to learn was “The Vampire Diaries.” Nigel [Williams-Goss] and the other older guys on the team were watching it. I got the subtitles. When I got here, I used to go around repeating rap songs, and I had no idea what the words meant.
What other sports did you play growing up in Japan?
Baseball, track and field and karate. I played baseball for six years in elementary. I was a catcher and pitched too, but I had to stop because I threw too fast and no one could catch me.
You played 4.6 minutes per game as a freshman in 2016-17. What was that like for you to have to sit that much?
I was talking to the coaches and they really wanted me to redshirt my freshman season, but I didn’t want to. I thought it would be good for me to play, even if it was just a little bit. It was frustrating to sit and watch, but I knew I would get the chance to play at some point. But it was still hard. That year I learned how to get my mind up for the game, and prepare for games, by watching guys like Nigel and Jordan Mathews.
What’s the key to this Gonzaga team getting back to the Final Four?
Defense. We have guys who can score. Everyone can score. We have to defend and rebound.
The rumor is that you’re no longer the most athletic guy on the team.
That’s not true [laughing]. I am the most athletic guy. Brandon Clarke [transfer from San Jose State] has a little more bounce, but I’m not saying he’s more athletic. He just has a little more bounce, that’s all.
You averaged 11.6 points last season but only averaged 7.6 shots per game. What do the coaches say about you being more
In the Japanese culture, we’re told to be humble. It’s hard for me to try and be aggressive, but I’m trying to be. Coach Few talks to me all the time about trying to be a tiger.
How is the Japanese food in Spokane?
There are a couple of good spots here. Sukiyaki has my favorite food. But I really like American food. I love the chicken at Chipotle and the burgers at Zip’s. They were shocked when I got here and I ate more than [former Gonzaga teammates] Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.
What are your goals for this season?
Of course, we want to get back to the Final Four as a team. For me, I want to become a leader a little bit. I’m one of the older guys now.
Who is the best player you have ever played against?
When I was 16, I played in Dubai against the USA Under-17 team. All the guys were crazy nice — Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Josh Jackson. I guarded Giles, and that’s when he was healthy. He was strong, athletic and had bounce.
Who is the most difficult player you’ve had to guard?
[Former Gonzaga forward] Domas [Sabonis]. He’s just so strong, plays so hard and has a nice hook shot that’s tough to stop.
What coach would you want to play for besides Mark Few?
Gregg Popovich. I love the way he coaches, and there are so many international players on the Spurs.
Who is your favorite NBA player?
I love to watch Kawhi [Leonard] and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Kawhi has the same body as mine and has huge hands. He can do everything — defend, score, shoot it.
Who is the coolest person you have ever met?
Michael Jordan at the Jordan Brand Classic when I was 16 or 17. It was in Brooklyn. He said something to me, but I had no idea what it was because I didn’t understand any English back then.
What would you say is your biggest fear?
I’m scared of animals, especially dogs and cats. I like [Coach Few’s] dog, though. Stella. His dog is huge. I think I ran away from her the first couple times I saw her, but she’s chill. Now I can go over and pat her. I have to — Coach forces me to do it. I also don’t like the water. I can’t swim, so I just chill on the side when we go over to Coach’s house and guys go in the pool. They tried to get me to learn how to swim, but I don’t want to do it.
Why did you pick Gonzaga?
I knew they had a lot of international players, I like the coaches — Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd — and love the city of Spokane. It reminds me of my hometown.