When the bj-league was introduced in Japan’s hoop scene six years ago, Makoto Sawaguchi was only 13 years old and not aware of the brand-new circuit.

As a matter of fact, the Akita Northern Happinets rookie guard found out about the league only a few years ago, while attending Morioka Minami High School in Iwate Prefecture.

His high school coach, Tasuku Saito, was the messenger. The former Osaka Evessa player, who now serves as a physical education teacher at Morioka Minami, told Sawaguchi about the league.

“He advised me to watch a game in person,” the 19-year-old Sawaguchi recalled, after Akita’s 91-65 loss to the Tokyo Apache on Wednesday at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. “So I went all the way to Sendai to see a game. And then I was smitten by the league and began to think that I wanted to actually play in the league.”

His dream came true quickly — quicker than others normally do. Instead of spending four years in college, Sawaguchi opted to make the jump from high school to the fledgling pro league. He was drafted by Akita, a first-year expansion team, last spring and become the first Japanese player to play in the league without college experience. (He enrolled in Iwate’s Fuji University last spring but didn’t play there and is currently working on withdrawing).

“I wasn’t thinking of going to a college at all,” the 184-cm Sawaguchi said with a grin.

Life in pro basketball isn’t necessarily sweet all the time, however. In fact, what’s going on in Sawaguchi’s head right now is a psychological conflict as he hits the wall in the pro game.

He got off to a respectable start early in the season, earning some playing time off the bench while scoring double-digit points in three consecutive games in October. But his minutes and points have gradually decreased since December.

He was even selected to play in the 2010-11 bj-league All-Star Game in Osaka in January. He was the youngest All-Star.

But as the Happinets, who have the Eastern Conference’s worst record (10-24) after Sunday’s defeat to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, have struggled during their inaugural season, Akita coach Bob Pierce has decided to keep Sawaguchi on the bench for longer stretches as the season progresses.

“While I wasn’t sure what was expected out of me, I kept playing my game and scored some points early in the season,” Sawaguchi said. “But eventually opponents got to know how I play and I couldn’t score as much.

“I was in the All-Star Game, but back on the team I’m not really playing. Honestly speaking, I was reluctant about being an All-Star, because I didn’t want to be seen like I’m useless on my own team although I was playing in the All-Star Game. I am in agony right now.”

First and foremost, Pierce believes Sawaguchi needs to improve his physical strength. He said that Japanese high schools and colleges don’t make weight training a major priority. As a result, he said, Japanese players have a disadvantage when they turn pro.

The American coach illustrated this point by comparing his youngest player with a trio of veteran guards from the Apache, against whom his club played that night.

“When you see Guchi out there against somebody like Jumpei (Nakama), Cohey (Aoki), or Darin (Satoshi Maki), he’s like five or six years of weight training behind,” Pierce said. “You are already so far behind in the physical aspect because they don’t do that much.”

Sawaguchi certainly knows that he needs to get stronger.

“I knew I wasn’t on the level I could play professionally yet,” said Sawaguchi, who has made two starts (34 total games) and averaged 5.8 points per game through Sunday. “My lack of physical strength is being shown on the court.”

But he won’t abandon his own high hopes for his future. Sawaguchi made a clear statement: he wants to be a top player in this league, by overcoming his limited experience and the physical shortcomings that he currently possesses.

“I look at my career and growth in a long span,” Sawaguchi said. “I don’t have to be a starter and do great right away. But in time, say, in a few years, I want to be considered as a top player and make my name in the league.”

Staff writer Ed Odeven contributed to this report.

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