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.
“It means a lot for me, for my family,” Hachimura said. “For Japan basketball, all my country, it’s a big thing.”
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.
Hachimura said he heard about his new home from Watanabe, a teammate with Japan’s national team who went to college in D.C. at George Washington.
“I heard a lot of good things about the city,” Hachimura said, “so I can’t wait to be there.”
The Wizards began the day without a second-round selection, but according to a person familiar with the deal, they made a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers to move back in and get Tennessee senior forward Admiral Schofield at the 42nd pick. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because nothing had been announced, said Washington gave up a trade exception that offers financial flexibility to Philadelphia, in exchange for the pick and Jonathon Simmons, a 29-year-old swingman who averaged 6.5 points and 26.9% shooting from 3-point range last season.
Hachimura is relatively new to basketball, having switched to the sport at age 13 after being a catcher in baseball.
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, a versatility that appealed to Washington, given how much help it needs up and down the roster after going 32-50 and missing the playoffs.
“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.