WASHINGTON (AP) — Rui Hachimura became the first player from Japan to get chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, taken with the No. 9 overall pick by the rebuilding Washington Wizards on Thursday night.
The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward averaged a team-leading 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds last season as a junior at Gonzaga, where he was the West Coast Conference player of the year.
The only other Japanese player drafted in NBA history was Yasutaka Okayama, who went 171st overall in 1981. He never appeared in a regular-season game, something just two players from the country have done: Yuta Tabuse for the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05, and Yuta Watanabe for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19.
“Actually, I played baseball before I started playing basketball. Basketball … it’s getting bigger (in Japan), and a lot of people are watching basketball right now,” Hachimura said.
In explaining why he wanted Hachimura, Wizards interim general manager Tommy Sheppard mentioned the 21-year-old’s play for Japan’s national team.
“For Japan to qualify for the world championships, he’s the focal point. And when the (Tokyo) Olympics come in 2020, he’s going to be the focal point of that country on that basketball team,” Sheppard said. “To be able to shoulder that load at his age — the maturity he has — I think that’s going to bode well for him in the NBA.”
Hachimura is capable of playing either forward spot, which was something that Washington liked, given how much help they need up and down the roster after going 32-50 and missing the playoffs as the 11th-best team in the 15-team Eastern Conference.
“With the way the league is going, you can just put him out there. It’s such a ‘position-less’ (league). I know that’s the cool thing to say, but it’s true. You have to be able to have playmakers on the floor,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “He can guard multiple positions. He can play 3, 4; in some small lineups, you can probably throw him at the 5.”
Soon after being drafted, Hachimura — who said the first NBA player he liked was Carmelo Anthony — was asked what his goals are in the NBA.
“First of all, I want to play in the playoffs. Of course, I want to help the team. I want a championship,” Hachimura said. “I think that’s the one thing I want to accomplish here.”
Coming off their worst record in six seasons and still in need of a permanent GM, the Wizards have a lot of work to do this offseason.
Washington still has not announced the hiring of a full-fledged replacement for Ernie Grunfeld, more than 2½ months since he was fired as team president late in the regular season.
Sheppard, the senior VP of basketball operations under Grunfeld, took over the job on an interim basis and is the only acknowledged candidate for the job at the moment.
“I would be worried if Tommy wasn’t here and if it was just me. I’d be worried, and I’d let you guys know you guys should be worried, as well. But the last couple of months, I’ve seen Tommy and his staff in place and working hard every day and preparing for this pick. I trust Ted’s decision,” Brooks said. “I like what Tommy has done. He’s done an excellent job. We definitely worked well together during this process.”
The only valuable, healthy member of a depleted roster is Bradley Beal, an All-Star shooting guard and the first Washington player to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season. He was 12th in the NBA in scoring average last season at 25.6 points.
All-Star point guard John Wall is sidelined by a torn Achilles tendon that will force him to sit out most of, if not all, of next season, when his $170 million super-max deal kicks in.
The cupboard is fairly bare, and there is not a lot of salary-cap space available to try to lure any top-level free agents because of the large contracts Grunfeld gave Wall and Beal, along with backup center Ian Mahinmi, who barely plays.
The Wizards entered Thursday without a second-round pick in the draft; Grunfeld traded it away.
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