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John Blanchette: There’s no debating Rui Hachimura’s legacy at Gonzaga

UPDATED: Tue., April 16, 2019

And now begins the debate over what Rui Hachimura might become.

He’ll be the first Japanese player selected in the National Basketball Association draft, that much is certain after he made official Monday the foregone conclusion of his bypassing his senior year at Gonzaga. But in the meantime comes the measuring and eyeballing and head-shrinking and nit-picking and upsiding and doubting and hyping and projecting … all to be repeated even once an NBA team makes him its choice.

This is as it needs to be, at least some of it. If there’s $15-20 million riding on such high-stakes eenie-meenie, every wonder and wart needs to be exposed to someone’s satisfaction.

Though his draft team might consider adding a million to his rookie contract just for the smile.

That will be missed hereabouts, too.

The possibilities of Future Rui birth new intrigue, to be sure, and the completed canvas of Recent Rui – with flourishes like the game-winning shot against the Huskies and the game-winning block against Duke – is more art for Gonzaga’s expanding gallery.

But the measure of his appeal and impact on Bulldogs basketball can’t be addressed without a longer rewind.

To Early Rui. Raw Rui. Did Not Play Rui.

His arrival on campus in 2016 was attended by equal parts mystery and hyperbole. The mystery owed to Japan’s slim history as a producer of major college basketball prospects and Hachimura’s outsized dominance of his high school countrymen. The hyperbole, well, it’s recruiting, isn’t it? And the Zags had just planted a flag in an exotic frontier.

There was even an immediate moment for the scrapbook.

In GU’s exhibition game that November, Hachimura knocked away a lazy high-post-to-guard pass at the 3-point arc and within a stride was clear for a thunderous left-handed dunk. Just as enduring, though, was the image of the intended pass recipient’s chin hitting his chest the instant Rui touched the ball.

It was if the poor soul had been posterized while still in the backcourt.

Repeats would be anticipated – and occasionally delivered – any time Hachimura checked in for a cameo appearance that season. He would play just 130 minutes as a freshman, the Zags veteran and deep and with no time for on-the-job training.

It seemed to some like the one cheat in a Final Four season.

It was anything but.

What was largely missed as the Zags started their unbeaten roll through the fall and winter and nearly into the NCAA tournament was Hachimura’s private assimilation boot camp. If he looked lost outside of his open-court theatrics, it was because A) he was understanding what coach Mark Few estimated as “about 10 percent of what we were telling him” and B) he was missing practice sessions to bring his English up to necessary levels. At one point, the staff tried early morning workouts to allow him to attend; Hachimura asked them to stop, not wanting his teammates inconvenienced on his account.

But it was also part of the plan.

Bulldogs assistant coach Tommy Lloyd would speak even then about a “three-year plan” that seemed pretty fanciful for a project who was seeing only mop-up minutes. There would be an adjustment year, an establishing year and then … world domination.

Kidding. Kind of.

Hachimura’s last-act curtain call before declaring himself NBA ready was to accept the Julius Erving Award as the nation’s top collegiate small forward (even if he played the position for about 20 minutes all season). His first act of his last act was returning home last summer to lead Japan in qualifying for both this year’s World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.

Simply put, there has never been a Zag with a growth arc like his, from 10th man to potential lottery pick in three years. Kelly Olynyk suggests a comparison, but he was a rotation player – the third big, even as a freshman – before his redshirt rebirth.

No, he was no lump of clay the staff magically molded into Apollo. He was a gifted player slow-tracked by circumstance. But it speaks again to the Zags’ now-celebrated developmental process and the cachet the program continues to build with ambitious recruits.

And it says every bit as much about Rui Hachimura.

Ambition requires sacrifice, and he made plenty. The demands are often daunting, whether grappling with language to being a nation’s great hope. The media attention from his country never quite reached Ichiro-esque levels, but it was constant and will be ever more so in the NBA.

Still, don’t forget the freshman Rui – shooting in that rare 3-pointer in the Elite Eight win over Xavier and helicoptering back down court, arms spread as wide as his smile. By that time, he’d assimilated enough to know what a Final Four meant to Gonzaga.

“Zag for life,” he signed off on Monday.

No debate there.

Follow along with the Zags

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