Rui Hachimura poised for breakout season at Gonzaga after starring abroad for Japan

Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura is the leading scorer at the FIBA U-19 World Championships. (AP)

After Rui Hachimura completed the round of 16 as the top scorer and second leading rebounder at the FIBA U-19 World Championships, the coach who recruited him to Gonzaga revealed he has even higher expectations for the promising forward.

Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd admitted he thought Hachimura might produce even gaudier numbers than 19.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game given Japan’s reliance on him as its lone significant scoring threat.

“To be honest with you, I thought there was the potential that he might do more,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “He has worked hard, and with the talent on that Japanese team maybe not being on par with some of the other countries, he has had to do a lot. Overall I’m happy with how he has performed. He’s been efficient in the role he was asked to play, but I was expecting maybe a 30-point game or two.”

Lloyd’s response exemplifies Gonzaga’s steadfast confidence in Hachimura as a prospect. The Zags believe the 6-foot-8 sophomore-to-be is poised to blossom into a multifaceted weapon next season despite contributing modestly as a freshman.

Still acclimating himself to the language and culture in the U.S. and to the speed and strength of the college game, Hachimura averaged only 2.6 points last season and did not appear in four of the Zags’ six NCAA tournament games. He devoted himself more to adding muscle, learning to move without the ball and developing the perimeter skills he lacked after always playing in the post in Japan, where he was typically the tallest player on the court.

Opportunities should be less scarce for Hachimura next season with Gonzaga seeking replacements for four of its top eight players from last year’s national runner-up squad. Hachimura will spend time at both forward spots next season, but his potential to create mismatches at the four is especially intriguing now that his jump shot is showing rapid improvement.

“This is not going to be another sit-back-and-learn year for Rui,” Lloyd said. “We’re going to need Rui to be an impact player for us.”

Gonzaga first became aware of Hachimura three years ago when he starred for Japan at the FIBA U-17 World Championships in Dubai. Lloyd watched with great interest as the then-largely unknown Japanese-Beninese forward averaged a tournament-best 22.1 points per game and showcased a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a diverse skillset.

While Lloyd is one of college basketball’s premier international recruiters, most of the prospects he had previously pursued at Gonzaga hailed from Canada or Europe. With no connections in Japan to vouch for him, Lloyd had to begin his pursuit of Hachimura with a cold call to his high school in Sendai.

“Fortunately they had an athletic trainer who’s also an assistant coach who’s also an English translator,” Lloyd said. “We communicated a lot with him and went through him to the officials at Rui’s school and then to Rui’s family. We were able to go step by step over the course of the recruitment via that translator.”

Hachimura initially was unfamiliar with U.S. college basketball or the Gonzaga program, but the international flavor of the Zags’ roster helped persuade him that the school could be a good fit. Last year’s Gonzaga team boasted players from Poland, Denmark, France, Canada and every corner of the United States.

“The only other school that was recruiting Rui that I’m aware of was Arizona,” Lloyd said. “I don’t want to say we beat Arizona because that might not be accurate, but we moved faster than they did. We offered him really early. They wanted to take a little bit more of a wait-and-see approach.”

Even though Hachimura didn’t project as a rotation player as a freshman, Gonzaga’s staff chose not to redshirt him. They believed his talent level was too high for him to remain in college five years and they hoped he could serve as a high-level fill-in if a key player suffered an ill-timed injury.

It turned out that Gonzaga remained relatively healthy all season, so Hachimura had to wait until the U-19 tournament to showcase the areas he has improved. He sank 6 of 14 threes, created more effectively off the dribble and crashed the glass at both ends of the floor, leading Japan to its first victory at the U-19 World Championships since 1999.

Japan nearly landed a second upset in the Round of 16 on Wednesday when Hachimura sank two 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds against Italy to spark a miracle comeback. His 22-point, 14-rebound performance went to waste, however, as Italy’s Tommaso Oxilia sank a go-ahead baseline jumper with 1.4 seconds left.

Now Hachimura can turn his focus toward preparing for his sophomore season at Gonzaga, where expectations will be high for him to build on his performance at the U-19 tournament.

“For Rui, year one was a big-time learning year,” Lloyd said. “You’re learning the culture, you’re learning college basketball, you’re learning how to work hard on a daily basis. Year two is going to be an experience year. You’re going to learn from your own mistakes. By year three, in my opinion, he’ll be ready to be a featured star player at the college level.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!