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The NBA's first player drafted from Japan could be a sign of the future

On the night of June 20, 2019, the Washington Wizards selected Rui Hachimura with the ninth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

While all rookies chosen get some media attention, particularly before their season even begins, only a handful get the audience that Hachimura garnered internationally.

What is it that separates him from the pack? The now 22-year-old was born in Japan, making him the first Japanese-born player in history to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Hachimura’s introduction to the league garnered attention from around the world. The next day, as he was unveiled as the newest member of the Wizards, roughly 100 members of the Japanese media crowded into D.C.’s Capital One Arena, alongside American sports journalists and producers.

“The attention, it was eye opening in one way but I think when we look at it now, he has the entire country of Japan on his shoulders,” said Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard. “He's got a lot of people paying attention to him and I don't think we think about that enough on a day-to-day basis, of how much is on him.”

Sheppard added that “the fact that his body has less wear and tear on it compared to the typical NBA body that started playing basketball in its preteens” could give Hachimura an upper hand on the court.

Rui Hachimura shakes NBA commissioner Adam Silver's hand after being selected as the ninth pick of the 2019 NBA draft by the Washington Wizards (CREDIT: NBA).

‘Unprecedented growth’ in Japan

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sparked controversy back in October 2019 after expressing support for the people of Hong Kong protesting against China.

However, China retaliated with its companies suspended live streams of NBA games and pulled merchandise out of stores, worrying NBA officials and players. China made up roughly 10% of the NBA’s annual revenue. One estimate reported that the NBA made about $500 million annually from Chinese sponsorships

The tensions with China, though, create an opportunity for the NBA to seek growth in Japan.

“Japan has become a very important market for us,” NBA Deputy Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum said. “We're seeing unprecedented growth in our business there as a result of having a Rui and Yuta [Watanabe] playing in our league.”

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, left, and Memphis Grizzlies guard Yuta Watanabe exchange jerseys after an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, trailing behind the U.S. and China, respectively. The Washington Wizards and the NBA are hoping Hachimura’s appearance and play will help them snag a piece of that pie, even though it more than certainly wouldn’t fill the economic role China had.

“We didn't spend a ton of time going into the draft planning on what it was going to be like, the response in Japan,” Washington Wizards President of Basketball Operations Jim Van Stone said. “But I think when we saw the coverage here, we knew very quickly that it's an opportunity for the sport of basketball to grow dramatically in the country of Japan.”

So far in the 2019-20 season, subscriptions for the league’s NBA Rakuten streaming service jumped 30% this season. Hachimura’s jersey has already become a top seller at the league’s Japan store, according to the NBA. Beyond the court, the rookie has signed on to promote Nissin Cup Noodles, SoftBank Group, and sneaker reseller GOAT.

‘They’re watching, they’re inspired’

In the history of the NBA, only three other players total have ties to Japan. Hachimura’s contemporary and teammate on the national team, Yuta Watanabe, entered the league one year prior during the 2018-19 season.

To find the first player of Japanese descent in the league, he played after the second World War. In 1947 — the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB — the New York Knicks of the then-Basketball Association of America (BAA) selected Ogden, Utah, native Wataru Misaka in the seventh round of the draft to break the NBA’s own color barrier.

Wataru Misaka dribbles a basketball at the University of Utah gymnasium (CREDIT: The University of Utah).

But none of these players have had the same attention or the same achievement as Hachimura, who halfway through his rookie season, already leads the four in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocking, and games played.

“A lot of media is following me, almost every day,” said Hachimura. “All the people in Japan watching like the little kids, and they watching, they're inspired.”

Japan’s future in the NBA

Whether he wants the reins or not, Hachimura is the face of Japanese basketball today and for the foreseeable future.

“If Hachimura happens to become a bust, for example, I think that's okay because it's just your first step and it allows you to at least familiarize your audience with the league in the first place,” NYU Clinical Associate Professor Brandon Brown said. “I think that speaks volumes in terms of what can happen for the youth in Japan.”

So far, the 6-foot-8 forward has produced promising results, allowing him to elude the dreaded bust label. Along with cracking the starting Wizards’ rotation, Hachimura will also participate in the Rising Stars Challenge, representing Team World.

“We want to be the team for Japan. We want to be somebody that everybody supports in that country. Certainly it starts with him,” Sheppard said. “We want to be the team for Japan. We want to be somebody that everybody supports in that country. Certainly it starts with him.”

Video and reportage by Yahoo Finance Producer Ignazio Monda and Yahoo Finance Reporter Akiko Fujita.

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