Japanese athletes have always been labeled inferior in size and power, forcing them to rely on skill and technique to compete on the international stage.
But here’s the question: Is their skill and technique really cutting-edge? And are they enough to make them competitive at the highest, global level?
Basketball is perhaps one sport where the question applies best. A half-year FIBA suspension starting in late 2014 forced the Japan Basketball Association to undertake extensive reforms both on and off the court. Coaches and teams will now have to develop the skills of players around the country.
Ganon Baker, a renowned basketball skills coach who has trained many NBA stars including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, came to Japan to hold basketball clinics for young children two years ago.
Asked about his impression of Japanese players and what they should work on improving, Baker simply said: “everything.”
“They need more polished offensive and defensive skills,” Baker told The Japan Times in an email. “Their competence for the game and basketball decision-making needs to change and get better. Their overall knowledge of the game needs to improve.
“They need to be more competitive and physical when they compete. They are too passive.”
The Toyota Alvark, a powerhouse team in Japan’s NBL, hired 26-year-old Takahiro Mori as an assistant/skills coach before the 2015-16 season. The job title is rare in Japanese basketball, where the team is given far more emphasis than the individual.
Mori’s role is to supplement what individual players are not able to work on in team practices.
“It can be ball-handling, it can be read and react,” said Mori, who earned a master’s degree in athletic coaching education while working as a manager for the men’s basketball team at West Virginia University before signing with Toyota last year.
“Sometimes I take care of their conditioning while training their individual skills. It really depends on the occasion.”
Mori arrived at the request of head coach Takuma Ito, who had been a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and worked as a manager on its men’s basketball team under then-head coach Shaka Smart. Ito had always thought Japanese players should undergo more individual training, working on their 1-on-1 skills, like they do in the United States, and thought Mori would be the right fit for the role at Toyota.
Mori is concerned about the skill level of Japanese players. But that doesn’t necessarily mean advanced, spectacular techniques such as crossover dribbling, windmill dunks or other eye-catching moves. It’s more about the fundamentals.
Mori believes that Japanese players in general lose the ball relatively easy and set their fundamental standards a little too low. He added that, even with just simple dribbling, Americans work at it harder.
Mori indicated that the circumstances in Japanese basketball will have to change, playing with more contact, otherwise they won’t be able to realize their full potential on the court.
Skills coach Baker insists that the basketball culture in Japan needs a transformation in order to give players a chance to step up to the next level.
“The coaches need to invest in their own development, their own knowledge and understanding of the game must improve and increase,” Baker said. “The government must invest time and resources to improve the quality of training and competition within the basketball culture in Japan.
“In Canada, Australia and many European countries, (their) governments fund basketball clubs and academies.
“In the top five basketball countries in the world, you find that the culture and governing bodies 100 percent support the grassroots and higher levels of basketball. This is how you see improvement and sustainability.”
Ito said Japanese players have technique, but not in a practical way that allows them to win in actual contests.
“In that respect, Japanese basketball is still behind and to be perfectly honest with you, I think that the gap with the rest of the world has gotten bigger compared to about 15 years ago, when I went to the United States,” said Ito, a Mie Prefecture native who went to Maryland’s Montrose Christian High School. “It’s gotten bigger with the United States, and bigger with the rest of the world, too.”
Toyota guard/forward Keijuro Matsui, who graduated from Montrose Christian and Columbia University, believes the Japanese school sports system is at fault. As the teams play all year, rather than having U.S.-style seasons, players don’t have time to build up individual skills, he believes.
“I personally think that it would be better for the players to be coached in individual skills outside their school team practices, for a couple of hours on the weekends or something like that,” Matsui said. “I’m sure there are a lot of players that want to be better in Japan, too.”
Besides Toyota skills coach Mori, other top Japanese clubs have made similar hires in recent years, while there are also private academies that emphasize individual skills in Japan. But overall, the value of working on individual skills has not been fully recognized.
The JBA enforced a rule to ban zone defense for players of 15 years or younger in order to polish their 1-on-1 skills following the FIBA suspension last year.
That’s progress. But Japan still has a long way to go before it can develop more players with global-standard skills to raise the country’s overall level.