- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Washington Wizards first-round pick Rui Hachimura doesn’t come close to teammate John Wall’s social media presence, trailing the injured guard by nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers.

Hachimura isn’t tops among his draft class, either. That honor belongs to No.1 overall selection Zion Williamson, who has 388,000 Twitter followers to Hachimura’s 113,000.

But, internationally speaking, Hachimura is arguably the NBA’s most popular rookie and already one of the league’s most popular players regardless of experience. His adherents include about 127 million people, the entire population of Japan.

Rui is huge right now,” Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki tells ESPN’s “The Undefeated.” “He has television cameras following him everywhere. He’s just not on the sport 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 (MLB superstars) Ichiro and Ohtani. Now Hachimura, everybody knows.”

Earning recognition domestically will be a much slower, more drawn-out process. But the 6-foot-8 Japan native took a step Monday when he was named to the All-NBA Summer League Second Team. In his three games, Hachimura averaged 19 points and seven rebounds.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Wizards were 2-1 with him and 0-2 without him.

Washington is unlikely to prevail very often when the real games begin next season. But the franchise already is a winner globally thanks to his presence. In Hachimura, the Wizards have a willing and capable world ambassador, an athlete who will elevate the franchise’s brand as much as its level of play.

(Speaking of the team’s brand and image, both have suffered immensely with the ouster of longtime play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz. I don’t care if the dagger was applied by NBC Sports Washington’s Damon Phillips or Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. Leaving Buckhantz in limbo — telling him the door was open but then slamming it in his face months later — was totally despicable. On that note, considering all the moves Tommy Sheppard has made as interim president of basketball operations, giving the permanent gig to anyone else would be absolutely shameful. Surely Leonsis is better than that, right?)

The Wizards might struggle to generate goodwill in the D.C. metropolitan area, but Hachimura is doing his part abroad.

His Las Vegas experience was chronicled by more than 60 Japanese media members who received credentials. He routinely conducted media sessions in English and his native language, an arrangement expected to continue next season when several Japanese organizations are represented among the Wizards‘ daily press corps.

“I’m used to it now, especially after the draft,” Hachimura told “The Undefeated.” “It was crazy talking English and Japanese back and forth. But I have gotten used to it. One of my jobs is 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.”

Previously, those little kids have struggled to relate.

Only one other Japanese player has ever been drafted in the NBA — Yasutaka Okayama with the 171st pick in 1981 — and he never appeared in a regular-season contest. Of the two Japanese players who have seen NBA action — Yuta Watanabe in 15 games last season and Yuta Tabuse in four games in 2004-05 — neither had much to write home about, at least not from a basketball sense.

Hachimura’s hardwood exploits should be considerably greater, fitting for a player selected ninth overall. But he’ll have to balance the demands of practicing, playing and improving, with the demands of being a national hero in Japan. The roles can coexist quite nicely, as demonstrated by China’s former NBA superstar Yao Ming.

No one who’s sane is suggesting that Hachimura will enjoy similar success. Ming was a five-time All-NBA player before injuries curtailed his Hall-of-Fame career after just eight seasons. But Hachimura easily could become a solid NBA player while conveying all of Ming’s ancillary value to Washington.

That would suit the 6-foot-8 forward just fine.

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

Let Wall and Bradley Beal battle over “Face of the Wizards.”

For now, Hachimura has a bigger goal in mind.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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