The education of Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura

Hachimura nails first-half buzzer-beater (0:24)

Rui Hacimura pulls up over two defenders and knocks down the buzzer-beating jumper to end the first half. (0:24)

SPOKANE, Wash. -- When Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura caught teammate Killian Tillie singing like the viral "yodeling kid" while staring in the mirror at their off-campus apartment last summer, he reacted like any college kid would.

"He was practicing by himself," said Hachimura, a projected NBA lottery pick and preseason All-American from Japan who averaged 22.7 points through Gonzaga's first three games. "I was like, 'What the f---?'"

The promising, 6-foot-8 combo forward communicates like a seasoned American, sprinkling clich├ęs, song lyrics and some occasional profanity into conversations. He's never cautious.

During his first year on Gonzaga's campus, however, Hachimura only understood Japanese, which interrupted everything he attempted to do on the court, in his social life and during his studies.

Gonzaga has recruited an abundance of international athletes. But here's the truth: Most of them spoke English when they arrived.

As the 2016-17 Bulldogs roared to the national title game against North Carolina during his freshman season, Hachimura felt trapped by his linguistic limits. He did not play in that matchup, partly because he struggled to comprehend instructions from his coaches.

His classes were hard. He was quiet around his teammates. He wondered if he'd made a mistake.

"You really can't communicate," Hachimura said about his first season with the Bulldogs. "That was really hard. That was really stressful. I don't know how I did that. But I don't think I'd do the same thing again, if I knew it was going to happen like that. No."

Today, he is both lighthearted and easygoing, a pair of requisite skills for a young man who bears the weight of his team's and nation's dreams.

He shouts rap lyrics, sometimes not knowing exactly what he's saying. He can quote his favorite TV shows. He's excelling in his courses and he's the best player on the No. 3 team in America.

"When you know him, he's a funny guy," Tillie said. "He puts music on and dances. He's a terrible singer. He's changed a lot since his freshman year."

At the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, a stacked field is led by Zion Williamson and Duke. But Hachimura could leave Hawaii as the breakout star of the event.

It's an opportune time for Japan's athletic superstars. Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani won American League Rookie of the Year. Naomi Osaka, who is Japanese and Haitian, defeated Serena Williams in the US Open. Yuzuru Hanyu, a Japanese figure skater, won gold medals at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Memphis Grizzlies signed Yuta Watanabe, a 6-9 small forward, to a two-way contract with the G League this season. But Hachimura is set to become the first Japanese lottery pick in NBA history next summer. He could also lead his national team to the 2020 Summer Olympics, which Japan will host.

During the summer, he scored 24 points for Japan in a win over Australia, which featured NBA players Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova, during the Asian qualifiers for next year's FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, an event that will determine the field for the following year's Olympics. Hachimura scored 25 points during a September win over Iran in the same qualifying tournament, keeping alive Japan's hopes of fielding a competitive Olympic hoops team as the host nation.

Hachimura's Gonzaga squad could dominate the West Coast Conference and reach the Final Four in Minneapolis before the junior presumably turns pro and rejoins his national team.

During the 2018-19 season, Hachimura could become an icon, both in the United States and abroad.

Last season, four of his games were broadcast in Japan on a tape-delay, part of an agreement between Gonzaga and J Sports, a Japanese media giant.

"The interest in Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe rises above all else at this time, and it's grown bit by bit over the past few years," said Ed Odeven, a Tokyo-based sportswriter for the Japan Times. "Media interest and fan excitement for them and what they are accomplishing is a big deal. Rui is a real fan favorite as witnessed during Japan national team appearances before lively crowds for FIBA World Cup qualifying a few months back here in Tokyo and Sendai."

This is not only a basketball tale. It's a story about a young man, like so many others who've come to America, who was burdened by the cultural and linguistic transition that threatened to ruin his journey. But he was determined to adapt and thrive in his new home with the support of a community in a modest town in Washington and a university built to help him.

"The people around me, they really helped, seriously," he said. "There was no way I could get through this by myself."

In Spokane, the truckers hum along U.S. Route 2 deep into the night in the city of 200,000 that sits between the mountains of Eastern Washington and hosts one of college basketball's greatest stories. Under Mark Few, the Bulldogs have never missed the NCAA tournament, a run that began with the 1999-2000 season.

To Hachimura, the region felt like his small hometown near Sendai, Japan, which is decorated with ski resorts, hiking trails and water. Plus, he knew he'd blossom under Few, who has molded six first-round draft picks.

But he did not anticipate the steep cultural differences.

He stood out in his homeland, a nation that's 98.5 percent Japanese. His mother is Japanese and his father is from the West African nation of Benin. Sometimes, his neighbors would stare, and others would question the authenticity of his Japanese heritage -- before he became a basketball superstar.

In the United States, however, Hachimura looks like a young African-American man, which also confused Americans who expected him to speak English when they met him. He mastered the nod-and-smile response during that rocky first season.

"I think I faked it a lot," he said.

That's not uncommon. English is one of the most difficult languages to learn for those who speak Japanese. "Pronunciation is difficult because Japanese has a very simple sound system," said Yoko Hasegawa, a Japanese linguistics expert and professor in the department of East Asian languages and cultures at UC Berkeley.

"Japanese is difficult to learn for English [and other European language] speakers because they belong to different language families," Hasegawa said. "Conversely, English is difficult for native speakers of Japanese to learn."

Sensitive to his teammate's situation, Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins tried everything to ease the transition when they roomed together during Hachimura's first summer in America in 2016. Perkins invited Hachimura to his brother's house for dinner shortly after he arrived, but the freshman wing only mumbled a few words throughout the night.

Hachimura only seemed relaxed whenever they made a run to his favorite fast-food joint.

"You'd just walk in and you'd say hello and that was pretty much it," Perkins said about his early conversations with Hachimura. "I taught him that watermelon slush from Sonic, though. He remembered that one."

Perkins knew Hachimura had gifts. When he played pickup basketball with his teammates that summer, Hachimura would point toward the rim whenever he wanted the ball, and when he got it, he was a force who demonstrated the same raw abilities Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd noticed when Hachimura averaged 22.6 points per game for Japan at the U17 FIBA World Championships in Dubai four years ago.

But when he left the court, he was lost. Those who come to this country are often told they can succeed if they master English. But Hachimura was stuck in a foreign country that demanded he speak multiple versions of its language.

Whose English should he learn?

Perkins and his teammates used slang Hachimura deciphered in the hip-hop songs they blasted in the locker room. In the classroom, the sports management major did not understand the academic jargon his professors utilized.

"I joke that for the first year we just played charades with each other," said Stephanie Galbraith, director of academic support services and one of Hachimura's critical tutors. "The words were sort of there, but if you could be in the same room with him, you could get to where you guys were on the same page. There's Google Translate and things like that, but mostly it was trying to break him out of his shell."

"He's a leader on our team now. Going from somebody who couldn't talk to being a leader on the team ... that's a huge step." Josh Perkins

He also did not speak the language of organized American basketball. In Japan, he was a beast who did what he wanted on the floor. Not under Few, who wanted Hachimura to understand the technical elements of the game. But what was "blocking out"? What was "icing a ball screen"? Hachimura didn't know. As a result, the gap between Few's instruction and Hachimura's limited understanding of it stalled their coach-player relationship and delayed his progress.

In Hachimura's first season, Few would often ask him to do something on the court, and the talented combo forward would just smile as if he understood. They both knew he did not.

During one practice, Few criticized Hachimura and his teammates for a "dumbass" play. Hachimura grinned as he jogged to the sideline. He thought Few had complimented him by comparing him to Domantas Sabonis, the former Gonzaga star nicknamed "Domas."

But his interpretation, as it had been all year, was wrong.

"It was tough," Few said. "It was really tough on him. And it was challenging for the staff. That was what was holding us back more than anything, where usually as a freshman, it's lack of strength, lack of understanding, lack of physicality, toughness. He was fine with all those. It was just tough to communicate. I told the staff, 'He's absorbing about 10 percent of what we're saying and trying to do.'"

He had the skills. But his limited English reduced his ability to use them. He'd traveled 4,800 miles from Japan to play with the Bulldogs and couldn't find any playing time on a mature team with standouts who understood Few's system.

Hachimura relied on Ken Nakagawa, a graduate student and video coordinator for the Bulldogs who has served as Hachimura's unofficial interpreter. Nakagawa, who joined the team during the 2016-17 season, tried to help Hachimura navigate the world around him, a rewarding task because he was so determined to learn, Nakagawa said.

"His first year was crazy," Nakagawa said. "He'd either be on the court at practice, or he'd be in the classroom studying, or he'd be back in the lab studying with his tutor. He really had no breaks. Through all that, he probably missed, maybe, five workouts outside practice all year. From the get-go, he came up to me and told me, 'I don't want to speak Japanese. I want all our communication to be in English.' We rarely speak Japanese together. Even when we grab something to eat or we're just hanging out, we're always speaking English."

Netflix helped, too.

Hachimura knew he had to absorb the language, and his favorite shows seemed like the quickest paths to learning. His dedication to spending time in Gonzaga's English Language Center soon rivaled his commitment to bingeing.

"I think the first year, [former player Nigel Williams-Goss], he and the other guys were watching 'Vampire Diaries,'" Hachimura said. "I don't know why I wanted to watch the TV show, but I did, and I really liked it. I watched a lot with the subtitles. TV really helped, like seriously. It really helped. And after that, I watched a lot of TV shows. 'Stranger Things.' Playing basketball is more communication. I felt like that English was more important."

Those around him noticed a shift after his first season. The quiet, reserved prospect had changed. He was more confident in conversations. When he nodded and smiled, it was because someone had made a joke he understood or, like his roommate who yodeled in front of a mirror, a fool of themselves. Life was more fun for Hachimura as he learned English, the most critical factor in his growth on the court. But the shift has come with a few hiccups.

Sometimes, his teammates have to warn him about screaming rapper YG's lyrics when he's walking around campus with his headphones on or using some of the four-letter words he has recently added to his vocabulary.

"I think music helped a lot," Hachimura said. "I like Drake. He was easy to understand. He used slang, but I could understand a little bit. Those love songs, I kind of, like, understand. He sings those love songs. I listen to 21 Savage. I like him. Kodak Black, I don't understand him, but I like him."

Before a mid-October practice, Hachimura stood in the lane at the McCarthey Athletic Center and worked on a left-handed jump hook. For 15 minutes, it was the same move, as an NBA scout took notes.

Dribble, dribble, pivot, shoot.

He would then return to the spot on the left block where he began and enter the same sequence.

Dribble, dribble, pivot, shoot.

He's a basketball zealot with a remarkable trajectory. Hachimura only played basketball for the first time when he was 13 because a friend dared him to join him at his next practice. At Meisei High School in Sendai, he won three All-Japan high school tournament titles before emerging as the future face of the national team and evolving into one of college basketball's top players.

By all accounts, the 6-8 forward is the multidimensional threat the NBA covets. Last year, he made 48 percent of his 2-point jump shots and 67.7 percent of his shots at the rim, per hoop-math.com. Per Synergy, he made 64.7 percent of his shots last season against zone defenses.

With Hachimura on the floor in its first two games, Gonzaga averaged 1.46 points per possession, made 69 percent of its shots inside the arc and connected on 39 percent of its 3-pointers, according to hooplens.com.

He idolizes Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard because of their dominance as big players who don't really have positions.

"He has the potential to be a very good NBA player," one NBA scout said about Hachimura. "He has good size. He's athletic. He has a good handle for his size. He goes hard. He has a decent stroke. He rebounds. He's a lottery pick."

Steve Nash put Canadian basketball on the map in the 1990s. Nearly 30 years ago, Vlade Divac introduced Americans to a pocket of talent hidden in gyms throughout Europe. Hachimura could serve as a catalyst for a basketball explosion in Japan.

In May, dozens of Japanese media members traveled to Spokane for Hachimura's media day. The television cameras from Japan's largest networks filmed him eating and hanging out with his teammates. At one point, the reporters asked school officials to arrange a study session with Hachimura, a staged moment they broadcast in the nation of 126 million.

"I expect more media exposure for Rui as the season marches on, and fan interest will elevate," said Odeven, the reporter in Japan. "When he gets drafted, it will begin to reach another stratosphere."

As Hachimura practiced the jump hook at last month's practice, Few walked toward his star and held him by the waist. They talked for a few moments before Few walked toward the baseline to work with other players.

Hachimura nodded and smiled. Then, he returned to his regiment.

Dribble, dribble, pivot, shoot.

His strides, on and off the court, have impressed those who remember his most difficult times.

Sometimes, Nakagawa thinks about the team retreat during Hachimura's first season. Hachimura admitted he only understood "10, 20 percent" of a guest speaker's presentation then. The following year, the team had another retreat with another guest speaker. That time, however, Hachimura answered his questions with proper English.

"That moment right there, I knew he was in the right spot with the right people and growing," Nakagawa said.

Perkins has watched his teammate and former roommate progress from the shy freshman to a prominent player on a team with the goods to win a national title.

"He's a leader on our team now," Perkins said. "Going from somebody who couldn't talk to being a leader on the team ... that's a huge step."

Galbraith, the tutor, is also amazed by Hachimura's gains. Someone with a weaker will might have left the school, she said.

"There's definitely times when his confidence was low, and had this not been something that he really felt he could do, I could have easily seen other students be like, 'I'm out. This is too much, and I'll just go play somewhere else and not even worry about school,'" she said.

Hachimura stayed.

In the coming months, Hachimura's position on NBA mock draft boards -- he's ranked 12th on ESPN.com's mock draft -- might fluctuate. But those attached to the program know he'll probably bolt for the NBA after this season amid the acclaim attached to that move.

Athletes with his gifts tend to secure multimillion-dollar deals at the next level. That part is not surprising. But Hachimura knows his struggles with the English language could have derailed his entire career.

"Learn English," he was told when he arrived.

That mission was more complicated and vital than he'd imagined when he left Japan.

"I didn't expect it was going to be that hard, but it was hard. But I knew that's the only way to achieve my goal, going to the NBA," Hachimura said, "because if I can't speak English, I can't play in the NBA."