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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Rui Hachimura (#8) of the Washington Wizards. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

Yuta Watanabe (#18) of the Memphis Grizzlies. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill, File)

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)


From The Asian Reporter, V30, #06 (May 4, 2020), pages 13 & 14.

UNCERTAIN SEASON. Forward Rui Hachimura (#8) of the Washington Wizards dribbles the ball up the court in a National Basketball Association (NBA) game against the Golden State Warriors, in San Francisco, on March 1, 2020. In the bottom photo, Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz is seen during an NBA match against the Boston Celtics, in Boston, on March 6, 2020.

Bright future for Asian NBA players amid virus uncertainty

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The coronavirus pandemic has stopped the sporting world in its tracks. Some leagues have delayed the start of their season, and others, like the National Basketball Association (NBA), had to halt play midseason. The NBA suspended its season on March 11, but there’s still no word about when and how the season will continue, leaving three players and a coach with Asian roots in suspense.

In the most likely scenario, the NBA will skip past the remaining regular-season games straight to the playoffs. If it does, two of those players and the coach will be in the playoffs, while Japan’s Rui Hachimura will watch from home.

The son of a Japanese mother and a Beninese father, Hachimura started playing basketball in Japan at age 14. Despite the late start, he soon caught the eye of international scouts, eventually getting recruited by Gonzaga University. There, Hachimura continued to develop his game, winning the 2019 Julius Erving Award as the NCAA’s best small forward.

Two months later, the Washington Wizards drafted Hachimura ninth overall, making him the NBA’s first Japanese first-round pick. He began his first season with Washington well, averaging 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds through his first 25 games, with a 48.2% field goal percentage. Then Hachimura suffered a groin injury that knocked him out for almost seven weeks.

He came back just as strong, averaging 12.5 points and 6.4 rebounds, with an equally strong 47.1% field goal percentage. And then the league suspended the season, with Washington sitting in ninth place in the East, 5.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the final playoff spot.

It would have been hard for the Wizards to catch Orlando over the final 18 games of the season. But getting so close to the playoffs should motivate Hachimura and the Wizards to continue improving and get there in 2021.

In 2014, the Wizards drafted a different player with Asian roots, Filipino-American Jordan Clarkson. But they quickly traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played alongside Asian-American Jeremy Lin in his first season. Over the three seasons that followed, Clarkson played both guard positions as a starter and substitute, consistently ranking among the team leaders in scoring and minutes played.

Midway through the 2017-2018 season, the Lakers traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Clarkson joined them in their fourth straight Finals appearance. Sadly, the Cavs lost for the third time in that span, but he remained a stalwart substitute for Cleveland last season, ranking third on the team in minutes played and second in scoring.

This season, Clarkson again found himself traded, this time to the Utah Jazz. While he remains on the bench, he went from last-place Cleveland to the fourth-best team in the Western Conference. Even though he’s just a super substitute, Clarkson’s Finals experience and ability to make tough shots off the bench could prove crucial for the Jazz.

Another Western Conference player with Asian roots, Japan’s Yuta Watanabe, has also been helping his team off the bench, though in a much smaller role than Clarkson. But Watanabe’s already done plenty for his fans in Japan.

As the child of two Japanese professional basketball players, Watanabe always knew he would follow in their footsteps. But he set his sights higher than the Japanese leagues they played in. At ten years old, he watched the debut of Yuta Tabuse, the NBA’s first Japanese player, and Watanabe resolved to play in the NBA too.

Watanabe later transferred to a Connecticut prep school, leading their basketball team to the National Prep Championship game. Then he enrolled at George Washington University, quickly becoming a feared defender and sharpshooter.

His height and speed enable Watanabe to guard virtually anyone, so he usually stifled the opponent’s best player, earning the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year award in his senior year. In his final year, he also led his team in scoring and three-pointers, and set school records in career blocks and minutes played.

Undrafted, Watanabe signed a two-year contract in 2018 with the Memphis Grizzlies and their developmental G League team, the Memphis Hustle. While Watanabe has only played 31 games over the past two seasons with the Grizzlies, he has anchored the Hustle while also starring for the Japanese national team.

Late this season, the Grizzlies activated Watanabe after Brandon Clarke was injured, giving the Japanese player a handful of appearances before the league shut down. But with months to heal, Clarke should be back for the playoffs, bumping Watanabe off the postseason roster, and leaving him to wait until next year to deepen his impact in the NBA.

The Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra knows a thing or two about the postseason. Spo is the NBA’s first Filipino-American head coach and the first Asian-American coach to win an NBA title, and the Heat reached the playoffs in 8 of his first 11 seasons at the helm.

The three playoff misses came after Miami’s NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 and four tough losses in the 2014 championship series. Following that series, the team worked on a complete overhaul of the Heat roster. This year, Spoelstra’s work is starting to pay off, and he has presided over a masterful mix of young talent.

His best young player is All-Star forward Bam Adebayo, who has emerged as a formidable all-around talent, leading the team with 38 double-doubles. This year, he was on pace to become just the sixth player in NBA history with a season average of at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block.

Other young players include the team’s deep threat, second-year forward Duncan Robinson. He ranked third in the NBA in three-point shots and fourth in three-point percentage this season. Kendrick Nunn emerged from the G League and now ranks fourth on the team in scoring and fifth in assists. And fellow rookie, Tyler Herro, who left Kentucky after one season, ranked sixth on the team this year in minutes played and scoring, fifth in assists, and eighth in rebounds.

Spo and the Heat face a tough road to the championship series in the current playoff matchups, as they would face the NBA’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. But with a mature coach like Spoelstra and a deep level of young talent, Miami should have many more chances ahead.

While the future of the NBA this season is still up in the air, the future for Asian-American sports fans is looking bright indeed.


SEASON STILL SUSPENDED. Guard Yuta Watanabe (#18, top left) of the Memphis Grizzlies blocks a ball held by forward LeBron James (#23) of the Los Angeles Lakers in a National Basketball Association game in Memphis, Tennessee, in this February 29, 2020 file photo. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill, File)



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