April 27, 2022
‘Go be Rui’: How Japanese point guard Rui Machida can elevate the Washington Mystics
The Olympic silver medalist is an elite passer and fills the Mystics’ hole at backup point guard
WASHINGTON – It’s not often that you see 80 media members assemble, in person and over Zoom, for a press conference to introduce a backup point guard. But Rui Machida is no ordinary backup point guard.
Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told reporters on Monday night that Machida has “some of the flair” and playmaking of Ticha Penicheiro—one of the top 25 players in WNBA history—and the ball-handling and vision of NBA legend Steve Nash.
“She sees the floor probably better than anybody we have,” he said, “and that’s not a knock on our players. It’s just that that’s one of her exceptional skills. … She has a court vision that very few players have.”
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At 29 years old, the 5’4 Machida is a two-time Olympian and won a silver medal with Japan at last year’s Tokyo Olympics. She averaged 7.2 points, 12.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game in Tokyo and set the Olympic single-game assists record with 18 against France in the semifinals. In the 2021-22 season with the Fujitsu RedWave, her professional team in Japan, Machida averaged 10.2 points, 8.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 33.8 minutes per game, making over half of her 2-pointers and exactly one-third of her 3-pointers.
“She’s extremely fast. Her ability to change speeds and directions, get into the paint and have people collapse, it opens up her ability to pass,” Seattle Storm guard and U.S. Olympian Jewell Loyd said of Machida during the Games. “… Her ability to find open players is phenomenal.”
Machida is a bona fide star in Japan—as evidenced by the strong contingent of Japanese media on Monday—but she told reporters that she hadn’t thought about making the leap to the WNBA before the Mystics reached out. The Mystics had had interest in Machida for several years, before her international breakout at the Olympics, and the time was finally right for both sides.
“[At] this age, you know, I’m 29, so I really feel like I needed to move on, go ahead and play in different [league] in WNBA,” Machida said through her translator, Miki Takei. “So this is the best opportunity, the best moment, and … this is going to be the best experience I’ve had for sure.”
The Mystics signed Machida on Feb. 14, but Monday’s press conference was her first with the DC media. Machida, Thibault and Takei walked onto the Mystics’ practice court at 8 p.m. sharp—9 a.m. Tuesday in Tokyo—to answer questions and take the customary photo of coach and player holding a red Mystics jersey. Thibault wore a suit and a blue, white and red checkered tie, telling reporters that he wanted to emulate the formality of a Japanese businessman.
Machida, in a red Mystics uniform and quarter-zip, spoke deliberately, pausing before several answers to think and occasionally stopping to converse with Takei mid-answer. But she chuckled at times, too, including some brief exchanges with Takei and a shared moment with Thibault when his microphone amplified the sound of him opening a plastic LIFEWTR bottle.
Machida arguably laughed the most shortly after she was asked about adjusting to a much more compressed schedule in the WNBA than in the Japanese W League. “Can I say something first?” Thibault cut in, looking at Machida for permission. “Most players would rather play games than practice.” She waited for the translation, then laughed, her and Thibault flashing near-identical grins.
Machida slots in perfectly with the Mystics as a backup to 2019 WNBA champion Natasha Cloud. She and Cloud both have speed and court vision, allowing the Mystics to push the pace and look for transition opportunities all game long. Thibault said that Machida is sometimes a “reluctant” 3-point shooter, like Cloud has been at times, but both are more than capable and will be encouraged to shoot from distance this season.
Although Thibault heaped praise on Machida and made the lofty comparison to Penicheiro, he isn’t burdening her with sky-high expectations right away. The first thing he wants Machida to do, he quipped, is get over her jet lag, and early in the season, he defines success for her as “getting acclimated and learning her teammates and kind of learning the basics of our team.”
“I’m not going to judge her every day,” he said. “I’m going to let her play. I’m going to coach her to teach her what we do. But her game is what I wanted.”
By mid-season, Thibault hopes to have a difference-maker who is “setting the tone when she’s in the game,” playing a lot of minutes and making her teammates better. Despite her size, he expects her to succeed on the defensive end, too, especially because there are similarities between the RedWave’s system and that of the Mystics.
“Go be Rui,” the Mystics’ staff told her.
Machida’s transition may also be easier than it would be otherwise because the Mystics have had plenty of experience with international players, including 2019 WNBA Finals MVP and Belgium native Emma Meesseman, and have been thinking about ways to mitigate the language barrier for months. Takei will be with Machida all season, helping her understand not only directions from the coaches and conversations with teammates, but also written communication such as scouting reports and signs around the city.
“You just have to be acutely aware of things that can come up and try to anticipate things,” Thibault said of having international players on the roster. “Sometimes it’s as simple [as] we take for granted things when we go and travel until you go overseas and do it yourself. You go, ‘Oh, I can’t read that sign’ or ‘I can’t do this’ … [Also,] Emma had a hearing handicap and so we had to figure out ways to make that easier or better. … You want to be both courteous and thoughtful and think ahead.”
That thinking ahead includes hand signals, which the Mystics have used previously and will double down on for Machida. But Thibault isn’t overly concerned, joking that “[his] body language will tell her sometimes, too” and explaining that good players know intuitively how to play with each other. “There’s kind of a universal language in basketball for the good players,” he said.
Asked whether Machida’s position as a point guard makes the language barrier more challenging, Thibault shrugged. He pointed out that in the Mystics’ defense, it’s the post players who have to communicate the most.
“She’s going to have to acclimate herself to hearing their voices,” he said. “She’s going to have to learn certain phrases … That’s just part of her learning process.”
“And I’ve been around enough English-speaking players that mess that up, too!” he added, eliciting laughter from reporters.
The last few weeks have been frenzied for Machida: She wrapped up her season with the RedWave with back-to-back games on April 16 and 17, landed in DC on April 23, met the media on April 25 and had her first practice on April 26. Thibault said in Monday’s press conference that he hadn’t spoken with her yet about whether she would play in the Mystics’ exhibition game on Wednesday (April 27), but “if it was my preference, yes.”
“I’m really excited after seeing Rui play,” Mystics star Elena Delle Donne told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “She’s got speed to her. She’s fearless. She finds people—there’s moments I’m like, ‘How the heck did she see that?’ …
“Point guards like that make you better because if you don’t cut or you don’t make that read, they’ll exploit it and kind of show like, ‘Hey, that was wide open.’ If she’s coming off a screen and there’s a gap that’s wide open and you’re just standing there watching her, it’s like, ‘Hey, get there.’ So players like her are really special. … She’s just going to be a problem for teams.”
Machida is set to become the fourth Japanese player to earn minutes in the WNBA, following Mikiko Hagiwara (1997-98), Yuko Oga (2008) and Ramu Tokashiki (2015-17). Like Machida, Hagiwara and Oga were both guards, but Machida is the smallest at 5’4, and she spoke directly to Japanese children in her press conference—especially the smallest ones.
“The message to kids and young players, even if you’re short, I just wanted to tell you, even if you’re short, you can play,” she said through Takei. “You can play overseas, in [the] WNBA … I want kids to try it out and take every challenge, as much challenge as you can take.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.