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Pacers Draft Prospect: Rui Hachimura

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Gonzaga’s Japanese star could be an ideal fit for the Pacers style.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Texas Tech Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

On June 20, Rui Hachimura will make history.

When his name is called, the junior forward from Gonzaga University will be the first Japanese-born player drafted in the NBA. And as various recent mock drafts making their way around the web have been suggesting, it may very well be the Indiana Pacers making that pick.

Hachimura has had one of the most unique paths to the NBA of any draft prospect. Born to a Japanese mother and Beninese father, he almost wasn’t able to attend Gonzaga in 2016 because he was struggling to pass the English language requirements for entry. After meeting the SAT requirements, the Gonzaga coaches laid out a three-year plan. Year 1: Acclimation. Year 2: Comfort. Year 3: Breakout.

After playing sparingly during Gonzaga’s Final Four run his freshman year, Hachimura showcased his skills as a starter in year two. Last season, he became the centerpiece of the team during his junior campaign, earning first team All-American status and winning the Julius Erving Award for the best collegiate small forward (which is kind of absurd, because he played 95%+ of his minutes at power forward).

While he was widely considered a Top 10 Draft talent during the season, his stock has been slipping in recent months. Here’s a breakdown of the good and the bad that Hachimura brings to the table (from someone who watched all but 4 or 5 of his games over the last three seasons).

STRENGTHS

Outside of the top few picks, it’s hard to argue that many players in this class can match the all-around offensive skills Hachimura presents.

It all starts with his shot. While it may be getting phased out of the NBA game, Hachimura has as pure a midrange jumper as you’ll find in a forward prospect. If defenders close out too hard, he possesses a pretty smooth handle for his size, allowing him to drive to the rim. He’s a killer in transition, with his fluidity leading to easy fast break finishes. He’s also got the back-to-the-basket skills to post up defenders and the touch to finish. For his Gonzaga career, he was a 60.7% 2-point shooter. He’s

After not displaying an outside shot in his limited first two seasons (making only 9 of his 40 attempts), Hachimura shot 41.7% from distance in 2018-19. However, Gonzaga’s offense relied on him being a flowing weapon inside the paint, so he only averaged 1 attempt per game, leaving doubts if his 3-point shot is for real. To hang in the NBA, his long ball needs to be pure.

The first time I saw Hachimura take the court for a scrimmage his freshman year, his frame comparison was obvious: “Oh, it’s the Japanese version of Giannis Antetokounmpo.” (Rui is 6’8” with a 7’2” wingspan; Antetokounmpo was 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan entering the draft – but he grew more post-draft.) With not as bulky and not nearly as explosive as Antetokounmpo, the two share a similar length and smoothness to the way they move on the court. Hachimura certainly has a projectable NBA body.

It’s not an area most NBA prospects get judged on, but Hachimura might be the most obviously teachable player in the Draft. In many ways, he’s the example of how the NCAA system can occasionally benefit a player on and off the court. Not only did Hachimura’s game grow substantially each year at Gonzaga, but he also essentially learned how to speak English and culturally assimilate. The fact that he’s only really been coachable in English for 2 years (and only started playing hoops when he was 14), suggests that more growth could be mined now that he has a handle on the language. Additionally, Hachimura has consistently shown he’s an unselfish teammate.

WEAKNESSES

Probably the biggest knock on Hachimura is that his defensive IQ seems a step behind his offensive IQ. He’s a capable defender with his length and can guard multiple spots on the floor, but can occasionally get lost in the flow of offensive plays. He can get out of place or be a step slow when defending in the pick-and-roll.

While Hachimura is a good athlete, he’s not an explosive one. That became apparent with Gonzaga’s addition of transfer Brandon Clarke, who’s elite leaping and defensive recovery made Hachimura look pedestrian in comparison (it’s now looking like Clarke might get drafted above Hachimura on athleticism alone). His first step doesn’t usually blow by defenders on a similar athletic level. While he’ll still be an athletic NBA small forward, he doesn’t wow you in that area the way his body suggests he would.

On a similar front, Hachimura needs to build up more strength to hang in the NBA. While he’s able to go through defenders to get to the rim and finish, more athletic and rabid defenses (especially smaller ones) attacked him when he had the ball in stationary or loose positions, leading to far too many turnovers via steals. He needs to get stronger with the ball and make more of an effort to crash the boards.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Hachimura during his Gonzaga tenure is the frequency which his shots in the post were blocked (sometimes even by guards). This can probably be attributed to the continued learning curve. He basically didn’t have a pump fake until this past season, in part because he might not have needed one growing up in Japan and always being more athletic and taller than his peers.

He’s also displayed a tendency at times to be too passive and willing to defer to his teammates. While not on an Andrew Wiggins-level of disappearing, there were a 3 or 4 games over the course of Gonzaga’s most recent season – when Hachimura was leader – when he wouldn’t attempt to force his will on game and only put up a shot or two in a half.

And despite the percentages, the small sample size of his 3-point shot attempts will surely have teams questioning if the long-range game will translate to the NBA.

FIT

In many ways, the Pacers would be the ideal fit for Hachimura both as a person and as a player. His silky midrange jumper fits a Pacers squad that still believes in the value of those shots, and there’s really no reason to believe he won’t be able to hit 3s consistently when that’s the role assigned to him in an NBA offense. His inside-midrange-outside offensive game offers the type of versatility the Pacers so often lack during the frustrating dry stretches. The Pacers’ defensive mentality (and the safety valve of Myles Turner’s rim protection) could push along his development on that end of the floor. While the Pacers will likely try to resign Bojan Bogdanovic, the only small forward currently under contract is the disappointing Doug McDermott, so adding young small forward depth is certainly a need.

Falling to the Pacers would remove the franchise-carrying burden of being a Top 10 pick (Hachimura will already have the weight of not disappointing his Japan fans). The franchise infrastructure would allow him to get his feet wet in the NBA away from a big city spotlight, similar to his tenure in Spokane. Plus, having a member of the Gonzaga family in Domantas Sabonis already in Indy (they also have the same agent), would probably further alleviate the professional transition.

(It’s also worth noting from a franchise perspective, that drafting Rui would likely open a new market – making the Pacers the favorite team in Japan in a similar way to how Chinese fans adopted the Rockets after drafting Yao Ming. A legion of Japanese reporters followed Rui around the country last Gonzaga season. The same would likely hold true for his NBA tenure.)

Hachimura is an unusual prospect for someone projected outside of the lottery in that his offensive game is developed enough to suggest a high floor and his physical tools have projectable upside (as does his growing language/cultural comfort), but there’s still a nagging sense that his one last step to reach a higher level of prospect might be higher than most. Atypical of most current NBA prospects, his game has grown so much during his years in college that there seems to be a lingering fear he may have hit the growth ceiling and could plateau.

To be honest, I’m still not sure why Hachimura is tumbling down draft boards since the college season ended, but it could be a boon for Indiana. There’s an inherent gamble in taking Rui Hachimura, but - then again – the Pacers have a pretty excellent track record of snagging intriguing small forwards who inexplicably fell too far in the draft.