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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Rui Hachimura Continues to Develop His Game and Improve

“He continues to provide ah-ha, wow moments. He doesn’t care who’s defending him, he’s going to do what Rui does.”ーDave Johnson, longtime radio voice of the Washington Wizards.

Ed Odeven

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Rui Hachimura appeared in his 100th NBA regular-season game on Monday, May 3.

The Toyama native delivered a strong performance, scoring 27 points on 12-for-19 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds in 31 minutes in Washington’s 154-141 victory over the visiting Indiana Pacers.

The second-year pro has missed more than 35 games due to various ailments (groin injury, pink eye and sore knee) early in his career, but his on-court production has been consistent. 

He’s matured as a player and become an increasingly important part of the Wizards’ game plan at both ends of the floor.

In late February, Wizards coach Scott Brooks cited Hachimura’s defensive improvement as an important factor in the team’s push to make the playoffs.

“He’s doing a better job of closing out and understanding there’s a lot of great shooters in this league,” Brooks said, according to NBC Sports Washington. “I think his off-the-ball defense is much-improved.” 

In recent weeks, Hachimura has also had several notable offensive performances, including 29 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 13, 26 against the Pacers on March 29 and 30 against the Charlotte Hornets the next day.

Phoenix Suns TV analyst Eddie Johnson, a talented scorer during his playing days, also weighed in on Hachimura’s development as an NBA player.

“Rui has definitely matured as an NBA player,” Johnson told JAPAN Forward. “His background and understanding of team play is perfect to be able to play with two dynamic guards like Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. 

“I do wish he would become a little more aggressive offensively but overall he is making a solid transition from year to year in his growth thus being on track to having a long productive career.”

In an exclusive interview with JAPAN Forward, Dave Johnson, the longtime radio voice of the Wizards who is quoted extensively below, offered his expert analysis of Hachimura’s steady growth as an NBA player. 

In short, Johnson is impressed with the former Gonzaga University star’s infectious energy, athleticism and never-wavering commitment to improve.

He also highlighted Hachimura’s consistency. The 6-foot-8 power forward is averaging 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 52 games (all starts) this season before the Wizards met the Pacers on Saturday, May 8. As a rookie, he averaged 13.5, 6.1 and 1.8.

His shooting has noticeably improved. He shot 46.6% from the floor in 2019-20 and 28.7% on 3-point attempts. This season, he’s better in both categories: 47.8% overall and 33.1% from 3-point range.

“There’s always going to be a learning curve for any young player in the NBA,” Johnson said. “But his ability to absorb so much in all kinds of conditions ー the pandemic, the shutdown [last spring], coping with injuries ー is truly special, and that’s why I think he will have long-term success as a pro, because he has the raw talent, but he also has the basketball IQ.”

What else has Johnson seen game after game from Hachimura while doing his announcing job?

“The big difference that we are seeing in Rui is the emergence of a player that is now much more confident and much more assertive and much more aggressive, and I mean that in a positive way,” said the voice of the Wizards He is now graduating from the point where he is deferring to others to do something, as someone coming into a new situation would, to realizing and understanding he has the ability in situations to take charge.

“And I think it cannot be expressed enough the impact that someone like Rui Hachimura, with his personality and ability, that he gets with a team that has a Russell Westbrook and a Bradley Beal as leaders. These are guys that are going to show him, and are showing him, how to consistently be really successful in the NBA as a pro.”

Westbrook, the league leader in assists (11.4 per game), is a nine-time NBA All-Star and a future Hall of Famer. Beal is the NBA’s second-leading scorer this season (31.1 points per game).

The Wizards announcer believes the two veteran stars are ideal mentors for Hachimura at this stage of his career.

“Not everyone graduates from getting into the NBA to staying and succeeding in the NBA,” he said, “and there’s many stories of players that get rookie year in not great situations that don’t have strong leadership on their team and they don’t have successful careers.

“Rui Hachimura is benefiting from the fact that he’s in a situation with the Wizards that he is truly playing and learning from the best … two players that are invested in his success. They want him to succeed and we are seeing his game elevate because of that.”

Asked what he’d want listeners to instantly pick up from his broadcast descriptions of Hachimura, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, during a game, Johnson gave this interesting response: “I would tell people to listen closely, because he will be involved in so many ways. He will be involved in more aggressive ways. He will now throw slam dunks down in the face of veteran players. He will hit a 3-pointer. There’s a calmness about him, but it belies a storm that also exists of a player that is a winner.”

Johnson gets paid to watch Wizards games, and he pays attention to players’ key characteristics. When he watches Hachimura, he sees a player who “at any moment can help change a game, because he is that focused and that determined, and it may be with a monster slam dunk or a key deflection. But fasten your seat belts and get locked in, because Rui Hachimura is that type of player.”

On any given day, only 450 players (a maximum 15 for each of the NBA’s 30 teams) are eligible to suit up and compete in games. For a sport played by hundreds of millions of people, Hachimura represents more than just being a part of global basketball’s best talent.

“Every player is fighting to make it and succeed in the NBA, so you are going to have a tough assignment every night, and he has just handled all these tough assignments and learned along the way,” Johnson commented. “His demeanor has helped him transition from raw rookie to an emerging star in this league, and I think that’s the trajectory that he’s on.”

Johnson mentioned that Hachimura’s commitment to his job extends beyond the final game of the season, citing the fact that the league’s best players focus on getting better during the offseason. For instance, he added several pounds of muscle between his rookie and second seasons.

“Rui Hachimura clearly has that work ethic and commitment,” Johnson stated. “And that’s going to be the difference [for him]. Numbers are going to go up and down. Bradley Beal is batting for a scoring title but he’s having his worst year shooting 3-pointers. …. The numbers that are important are consistent with Rui Hachimura and I think about that big win the other night against the Indiana Pacers, when Russell Westbrook blew everybody away with so many numbers (14 points, 21 rebounds, 24 assists), and we were all talking about Russell Westbrook and justifiably so, but it’s easy to get lost what a successful night Rui had.”

Quite notably, Johnson recalled a game early on in Hachimura’s rookie season against the Philadelphia 76ers (December 5, 2019) in which he scored 27 points and also drew a tough defensive assignment against Joel Embiid. The Wizards won 119-113. It was a reminder of Hachimura’s fearlessness.

“As a rookie or a young player in this league, veterans are going to take advantage of you because the league is that good, but Rui has never looked out of place, never looked overwhelmed,” Johnson observed. “The moment has never seemed too big for him.”

On April 28, Hachimura dunked over Los Angeles Lakers superstar Anthony Davis, a signature moment in the game for him.

“He continues to provide ah-ha, wow moments,” Johnson concluded. “He doesn’t care who’s defending him, he’s going to do what Rui does.”

Ross Kreines, an authoritative college and NBA observer who analyzes players via his Twitter feed, told JAPAN Forward this week that Hachimura is noticeably more comfortable this season than he was as a rookie.

“I noticed the game has slowed down for Rui,” Kreines wrote in an email. “His jumper is shot with more confidence which is now forcing defenders to close, so he can then use his quick first step and great athleticism to finish at the rim.

“Rui is starting to put the defender at his mercy. He is using his great athleticism and length on both ends of the floor. I am seeing more cutting/slashing from him, which leads to easy baskets and he is making more extra-effort plays.”


1972 Olympic Top Scorer Taniguchi Dies at Age 75

Masatomo Taniguchi, the leading scorer in the men’s basketball tournament at the 1972 Munich Olympics, passed away on Monday, May 3. He was 75.

Pancreatic cancer was the cause of death, according to published reports.

Taniguchi totaled 191 points in nine Olympic games in Germany, averaging a tourney-high 21.2 pints per game. His high scoring output included 39 points against Spain and 34 versus Senegal. Japan went 2-7, finishing 14th overall.

Australia’s Eddie Palubinskas was No. 2 (190 points) and Puerto Rico’s Hector Blondet amassed 150 points.

In the Japan Basketball League, the 186-cm, left-handed shooter thrived as not only the premier scorer for the Nippon Kokan Sea Hawks, but as the circuit’s No. 1 scorer every season from 1971-76. 

Playing for the Sea Hawks from 1968-76, Taniguchi was a two-time league MVP, and helped the team win four consecutive league titles. (The club disbanded in the 1990s.)

Taniguchi later served as the Japan Basketball Association’s executive director.

Rugby

Himeno Named Super Rugby Aotearoa’s Top Rookie

Highlanders loose forward Kazuki Himeno is the Super Rugby Aotearoa’s Rookie of the Year, it was announced on Tuesday, May 4.

Super Rugby Aotearoa features Super Rugby’s five New Zealand teams. The global Super Rugby competition was canceled last year due to the pandemic, making the New Zealand spinoff tournament a showcase for the island nation’s clubs.

“While Himeno previously played Super Rugby for the Sunwolves in 2018, the 17-test loose forward is eligible for the award on the basis that he was playing in his first season as a contracted New Zealand-based player,” Rugbypass.com reported.

Allblacks.com‘s writers voted for the top rookies, casting ballots for three rookies after each Super Rugby Aotearoa match.

Voting was close. Himeno received 11 points, one more than teammate Connor Garden-Bachop. Blues lock Sam Darry (eight points) rounded out the top three.

Track and Field

Japan Men Place Second in 4×400 Relay at Meet in Poland

For the first time, Japan earned a top-three finish in the men’s 4×400-meter relay in a global meet on Sunday, May 2.

The runners: Rikuya Ito, Kaito Kawabata, Kentaro Sato and Aoto Suzuki accomplished the feat in Chorzow, Poland, at the World Athletics Relays, completing the race in 3 minutes, 4.45 seconds.

Suzuki, 19, had a strong showing on the anchor leg, overtaking two opponents to secure the quartet’s runner-up spot.

For Suzuki, his 400-meter role came with lofty ambitions.

“[I had] a mindset that I was on a mission,” Suzuki was quoted as saying by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

In the women’s 4×100 final on the same day, Japan (Hanae Aoyama, Mei Kodama, Ami Saito and Remi Tsuruta) finished fourth in 44.40 seconds. Italy (Irene Siragusa, Gloria Hooper, Anna Bongiorni and Vittoria Fontana) ran a season-best time of 43.79 to win the race, while Poland and the Netherlands placed second and third, respectively.

Sapporo Half Marathon Gives Olympic Runners Test

Mao Ichiyama enjoyed a confidence-boosting victory at the Sapporo Challenge Half Marathon on Wednesday, May 5.

By doing so, she outperformed Olympic marathon teammates on a modified course for this summer’s Olympic marathon races.

Ichiyama completed the race in 1 hour, 8 minutes, 28 seconds. Mizuki Matsuda, a Japan marathon team substitute, placed second, 4 seconds after Ichiyama crossed the finish line. Ayuko Suzuki and Olympic teammate Honami Maeda were third and fifth.

“There were parts where things got hard, but the wind was at my back, so all in all I felt good,” Ichiyama was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “I wanted to set a personal best as well as win, so I was able to gut it out.”

Tennis

Osaka Sees Progress on Clay Despite Early Exit in Madrid

Naomi Osaka has won all four of her Grand Slam titles on hard courts.

Which creates a lasting reminder for her that all-around success in the sport also involves playing well on clay and grass.

In preparing for the upcoming French Open, which starts on May 24, Osaka participated in the Madrid Open and was ousted in the second round by Karolina Muchova on May 2. The No. 2 seed fell 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.

Perhaps the loss was an educational experience for Osaka.

“I’m really happy with how I was able to talk with my team after I lost and after I came off the court. I think we really have a plan now, so I think it’s good,” she told Agence France-Presse after the match.

The French Open begins on May 24 in Paris, and Osaka is aiming to elevate her game there, instead of peaking in the Spanish capital.

“These tournaments are called warm-up tournaments and of course we all come here to win and do well at these tournaments too, but I would prefer to peak at the French as opposed to winning this tournament and then kind of going downhill,” Osaka told AFP.

Diving

14-Year-Old Tamai Qualifies for Tokyo Games

Teen phenom Rikuto Tamai punched his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics by placing eighth in the 10-meter platform event at the Diving World Cup on Monday, May 3 at Tokyo Aquatics Center.

The third-year junior high school student finished in 15th place (out of 46 participants) in the opening round, landing him a spot in the semifinals.

In 2019, Tamai was 12 years old when he won the men’s national diving crown. But that didn’t enable him to dive at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in South Korea.

Why?

He was too young to compete.

Now he isn’t. But he’s poised to become Japan’s youngest Olympian at the rescheduled Tokyo Games.


Britain’s Tom Daley, who triumphed in the 10-meter synchronized diving event along with Matthew Lee at the same meet in Tokyo, believes Tamai will be a source of pride for Japan at the upcoming Olympics

“Every single person in this building [Tokyo Aquatics Centre] will be rooting for him to do the best that he can, and especially being able to dive in front of a home crowd at the Olympics, or hopefully there’ll be a crowd for Japanese spectators,” Daley told Olympics.com.

Baseball

Reds’ Akiyama Completes Rehab Stint in Triple-A

When the 2021 MLB season began this spring, veteran outfielder Shogo Akiyama wasn’t ready to play in games yet.

A left hamstring strain sustained in spring training derailed his plans.

But the 33-year-old Akiyama, who played his first season in the major leagues in 2020, worked his way back in shape, playing for the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Bats.

He appeared in his first minor league game on Tuesday, May 4. 

Before Akiyama’s regular-season debut, albeit in the minors, Reds manager David Bell outlined his hopes for Akiyama’s return to the parent club.

“I would say, if everything keeps going the way it’s going, for sure in the next week,” Bell was quoted as saying by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The former Saitama Seibu Lions star went 1-for-9 in his first two games with Louisville. He was called up to the majors and made his 2021 debut with the Reds on Friday, May 7. Akiyama, who batted ninth and started in left field, was hitless in three at-bats against the Cleveland Indians.

RELATED STORY: [JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] MLB Rookie Shogo Akiyama Prepares for Season Despite Unknown Factors

Sumo

Yokozuna Hakuho to Sit Out Summer Basho

As expected, Hakuho will not compete in the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, which begins on Sunday, May 9 at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The yokozuna is recovering from knee surgery in March, and he withdrew from the 15-day tournament on Friday, May 7.

Hakuho, who has won a record 44 Emperor’s Cups, is planning to return to competition in July at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, according to published reports.

Quotes of the Week


“It’s official! I’m seeking your support to be the next Mayor of Stamford, Connecticut!”

Bobby Valentine, former Japan Series-winning manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, announced on May 7. He is running for mayor as an independent. Stamford is Valentine’s hometown. Valentine, who turns 71 on May 13, also managed MLB’s Texas Rangers, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. See the 3-minute campaign promotional video on YouTube.

“Everybody, the athletes particularly, will hope for spectators. But I think they recognize that if that’s not possible then the games will still take place and the competition will still be extremely good.”

ーWorld Athletics President Sebastian Coe, the 2012 London Olympics Organizing Committee chief, on the possibility of the Tokyo Games being held without any fans in the stands. 

“Government policies are being set with the Olympics in mind, and measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic are being neglected. Hospitals are stretched thin, and some people are dying at home.”

ーLawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, who organized a cancel-the-Olympics petition that was posted online this week at change.org and collected tens of thousands of signatures, told The Associated Press.



Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page  or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.