BOISE, Idaho -- With less than four minutes remaining in Gonzaga's back-and-forth, round-of-32 track meet with Ohio State on Saturday, Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura picked the perfect time to jump out of his comfort zone.
Looking to quiet a furious second-half comeback by a Buckeyes team that already had erased a 15-point first-half deficit, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound sophomore from Toyama, Japan, knocked down a 3-pointer to give Gonzaga a crucial six-point lead with 3:44 left. The shot, which hit nothing but net and ignited the overwhelming pro-Gonzaga crowd at Taco Bell Arena, was only the ninth 3 for Hachimura in his two years with the Bulldogs. He had hit just 8 of 39 from beyond the arc before that.
Hachimura helped boost a Gonzaga lead that later ballooned to as much as 10 before the Zags' eventual 90-84 win that sent them to their fourth straight Sweet 16. Hachimura's 3 caused near pandemonium, but it was only one of many late-game heroics from Gonzaga's rising star. In the final 2:20, Hachimura accounted for a block, five free throws and an emphatic, open-floor dunk. He finished with a career-high 25 points, five rebounds and four blocks off the bench. Two days after struggling with four points, four fouls and five rebounds in a nail-biting win over UNC Greensboro, Hachimura had his most important coming-out party in a season of complete transformation for the youngster, who is no doubt starting to earn the attention of NBA scouts with his athleticism, size and potential.
"It was great to get Rui going again," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the win. "I think he was disappointed with how he played Thursday [against UNC Greensboro].
"Obviously I think we all knew he was going to play better, but for him to play this well was huge. We needed every point. We needed every rebound."
How Hachimura played Saturday was something to behold -- especially in person -- but how he got here is just as impressive.
Only the fifth Japanese-born male Division I college basketball player in history, Hachimura was discovered by Gonzaga coaches during his junior year at Meisei High School in Tokyo. His breakout performance at the FIBA U17 World Championships in Dubai in August 2014 -- where he averaged a tournament-best 22.1 points -- got assistant coach Tommy Lloyd on a flight to Japan.
Lloyd, who served as Hachimura's lead recruiter and has helped bring a number of international players to Gonzaga, said highlights showed "really interesting potential and game" from Hachimura, but in person, Lloyd admitted he saw a much stronger and more athletic player than he expected. Hachimura was big-boned with a lot of muscle, Lloyd said, and his dense body packed a pop, yet he had a nimbleness that helped him almost glide up and down the court at times.
"You knew his body was going to develop into something," Lloyd said.
With help from Hachimura's team trainer, who went to Indiana State and served as an interpreter, Lloyd was able to keep in contact with Hachimura, who didn't speak much English at the time.
Hachimura visited Gonzaga and Arizona before signing with the Zags in November 2015. But once he arrived in the U.S., Hachimura had to get acclimated to a new country, culture and style of basketball a world away from home.
Hachimura, whose mother is Japanese and father is from the West African nation of Benin, took English classes in Japan and accelerated his studies by taking ESL (English as a second language) courses at Gonzaga. Early on, he got around campus with Japanese students he befriended who could read the names of buildings and campus signs so he could find his classes.
During one of his first nights out to eat at point guard Josh Perkins' brother's house in Spokane, Washington, Hachimura made it through the meal by only saying, "Mmm, good" about the food that he inhaled in front of the Perkins and fellow forward Jeremy Jones.
"None of us could imagine coming over here, not knowing the language at all. It's tough," Jones said.
Early practices were difficult because Hachimura, who didn't have the benefit of an interpreter at practice, wasn't comfortable with the speed of communication or the game itself. He couldn't grasp the faster, more physical style, and he certainly wasn't understanding much of the verbiage.
At one practice, Hachimura got excited when he thought his coach had compared him to Indiana Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis. It turns out Few had called him "dumbass," not Domantas.
"That was hard [early on]," Hachimura said. "It was crazy because, like, I had no idea what any of the words were."
Hachimura, who played in 28 games and took only 53 shots in the 2016-17 season, studied and worked with English tutors. He even used the popular young adult drama series "Vampire Diaries" as a real guide to the English language, but it was the constant conversations with his teammates and coaches that really helped.
Sure, there were jokes at Hachimura's expense as he learned, but teammates helped him assimilate faster by teaching him slang and sometimes a few curse words.
It was silly at times, but Hachimura says it really did help, and he was bonding with his teammates. Naturally, it came with awkward moments, like his ability to completely butcher the term "lit" by constantly using it out of context.
Still, he was getting more comfortable with his new language and he was finally feeling like part of a team. More than a year later, his English has vastly improved and he makes jokes without always being the butt of them. Hangouts are more fluid, and in their spare time teammates are even (secretly) teaching Hachimura how to drive so that he can finally get his driver's license.
"I just want to help my teammates," Hachimura said. "They've been helping me since I came here, and I just want to pay them back."
As Hachimura's verbal skills have improved, so have his on-court expectations, especially after constantly getting pushed around as a freshman.
Jones made sure that if Hachimura couldn't understand things verbally, he understood them physically, so he literally pushed him to his limits in practice. Hachimura said things nearly escalated into fistfights in practice because of how rough Jones got.
"The first time, I was like, 'What's wrong with you?'" Hachimura said. "But now I understand: We had to fight. And he's always teaching me."
This year Hachimura is averaging nearly five boards a game and is getting inside the paint and to the rim more, attempting 124 free throws this season. He's more aggressive offensively and defensively. He doesn't shy away from contact as much as he did in his freshman season and has even applied some of Jones' tactics in practice this season.
"He's way tougher than he was when he first got here," Jones said. "I piss him off a lot and he pisses me off a lot, but that's helped him out a lot.
"He's got that killer in him now."
When he's on, Hachimura is the definition of a matchup problem. He can take people down low, hit the midrange jumper and put the ball on the floor. Since mid-December, he has failed to reach double figures in scoring just six times in 24 games. He flashes guard-like speed at times and can slither past opponents with his quickness.
"Rui's greatest advantage is his physical ability, then you layer that with his skills," Lloyd said. "At the end of the day, Rui is a great teammate and values contributing to a team. He holds himself accountable for that."
Consistently putting his athleticism, natural skill and newfound physical nature together is what could really take Hachimura to the next level. Hachimura is still adapting, but he's starting to gain more notoriety in the U.S. While he was constantly swarmed by a cluster of five Japanese reporters in Boise, he has found himself talking more and more with the American media because of this season's improvements.
Expectations and attention are growing, and Thursday brings another ruthlessly physical test against the Florida State Seminoles in Los Angeles. While the learning process is still very much show-and-tell with him at times, teammates and coaches are no longer surprised by what Hachimura can do when he gets more and more comfortable with the uncomfortable.