Japan national team balancing present needs with future development


Staff Writer

With the Olympic men’s basketball qualifying tournaments set for July, Japan national head coach Kenji Hasegawa assembled 27 players from the NBL, bj-league and college ranks for a two-day training camp that started Monday.

Most of the players were still fatigued from regular-season games and some couldn’t even practice due to injuries.

So was the midseason mini camp necessary with the players not in top condition?

Absolutely, according to Hasegawa.

The Japan coach told reporters at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Tuesday that while his team would definitely go to Belgrade for Olympic qualifying with the aim of winning, he has to map out a long-term plan to develop the national team for the future.

FIBA has modified the qualifying format for the FIBA World Cup — which will next be held in China in 2019 — to a home-and-away system, as used in soccer, beginning 2017. The Asia Championship had previously been the qualifying tourney for the World Cup.

That means some of the World Cup qualifying games will be played during the domestic league season.

“This is a simulation for the World Cup qualifiers,” Hasegawa said, with regards to seeing what kind of condition the players will be in when they are called up during the season. “We want the clubs to understand that, too.”

In the upcoming 18-team Olympic qualifying tournament, Japan is in Group B along with the Czech Republic and Latvia in Belgrade. Qualifying will be held at three different locations, and the winners from each will head to Rio. The other two sites are Manila and Turin, Italy.

Hasegawa said Team Japan wasn’t flying to Serbia to sightsee or gain experience, but to win. He said the team would look to post at least one win against its group rivals and advance to the semifinals against one of the Group A teams (Serbia, Angola and Puerto Rico).

“It’s not a bad allocation for us,” Hasegawa said of the grouping. “Whether it’s Latvia or the Czech Republic, they are about the same level. So if we go 1-1 against them to qualify through the group in second place, then we’ll play against, I think it’ll be Serbia (which is favored to finish atop in its group) in the semifinals. Serbia finished third at the 2010 World Cup. If we can play against such a team in an official game, we’ll make a big step forward.”

Hasegawa, however, isn’t naive. He knows how hard it is to earn a victory against European teams.

Japan, which hasn’t appeared at an Olympic basketball tournament since the 1976 Montreal Games, is the lowest-ranked team (48th) in qualifying.

“Since the 2006 World Championship, Japan (the top team) hasn’t played against a non-Asian team in an official game,” Hasegawa said. “And even the 2006 tourney, it was in Japan. So the last time Japan played against non-Asian teams away, you’ve got to go back to the 1998 World Championships (held in Greece). So in the last 18 years, there isn’t a single game. So I think it’s a realistic goal to win one against a European team, instead of setting a goal of going to the Olympics this time.”

Hasegawa hinted that the larger goal is to develop the national team to be competitive enough to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in China, where three Asian nations will earn spots. That said, the upcoming Olympic qualifying will be a great opportunity for the team to get experience competing on the global stage.

Hasegawa said he plans to hold another in-season mini camp in April and for the team to have a full training camp and then compete in a tournament in China in June.

He also said that France, which is ranked No. 5 in the world, has offered to play exhibition games there before Olympic qualifying. France, which has several NBA players, is in Group B for the Manila tournament.

Hasegawa selected 29 men overall in his preliminary group this time, but George Washington University guard/forward Yuta Watanabe and high school phenom Rui Hachimura didn’t come.

Hasegawa, who visited Washington to see Watanabe recently, said Watanabe could join the national team for June’s training camp.

Meanwhile, the preliminary national team had some fresh, intriguing faces.

Among them, Senegalese-born Pape Mour Faye drew attention from reporters as he donned a Japan practice jersey for the first time since officially gaining Japanese citizenship last December.

Faye had taken part in a national team practice last year, but this time he is officially eligible to play for Japan.

“The last time I was here, I wasn’t naturalized yet, so I’m happy that I’ve been called up again and hopefully I can show them better performances going forward,” said Faye, who seemed tired during Tuesday’s practice as he has played 1,365 minutes in 40 games (second most in the bj-league) this season for the Niigata Albirex BB.

Faye, a 200-cm center who’s averaging 12.2 points and 10.4 rebounds for Niigata, is expected to provide physicality and rebounding ability underneath the basket for the national team.

“As I have done (for my club), I want to do my best inside,” said Faye, who’s been in Japan since high school, in fluent Japanese. “I’m used to playing against foreigners (in the bj-league), so it’s no different.”

Yudai Baba is another attractive player who’s considered to be one of the best prospects on the Japanese hoop scene with his rare combination of size and athleticism.

“I don’t lag behind anyone in terms of athleticism,” said Baba, a Tsukuba University player who stands at 195 cm. “At the college level, there’s not many players with this size who can move. I believe I can demonstrate it with the national team as well.”

Baba, 20, could eventually be a great asset for Japan, which will host the Olympics in four years’ time, as a player the likes of which the country has never seen before.

Because of his height and scoring ability, Baba is used as a small forward at Tsukuba University, but wants to make the point guard position his primary spot in the near future, with the hope of playing overseas.

“I’m not thinking of playing in Japan after my graduation,” said Baba, who led Tsukuba to a second straight intercollegiate national championship last year and was chosen as the tournament MVP. “I’m looking to go outside of Japan and do well. I think I can do a lot of different things for my size, and I want to be a player that can feed passes and score when I have to.”