It may not happen right away, but Japan’s men’s basketball looks set to go nowhere but up.
And at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, it could field a “Japanese dream team” with exceptional talents, such as Yuta Watanabe, Yuki Togashi and Rui Hachimura.
Last Monday, the Japan Basketball Association and its men’s national team head coach Kenji Hasegawa revealed its 27-man provisional roster for its training camps ahead of September’s FIBA Asian Championship in China.
While the squad is mostly made up of established players such as Yuta Tabuse, Joji Takeuchi and Kosuke Kanamaru, Hasegawa also called up some youngsters who still have a lot of room to grow but possess enormous potential.
Players like Watanabe and Hachimura are Team Japan’s future, and for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and 2020 Olympics, the team will need them as its central core.
Hasegawa said that he and his team will go all-out to gain a spot in next summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but at the same time he added that they have to be realistic. Only the winner of the Asian Championship gets an automatic berth for the 2016 Games, but Japan has never had a podium finish in its last eight attempts.
Qualification is tight for the Olympics, which offers spots to just 12 nations, while a total of 32 countries compete in the men’s FIBA Basketball World Cup.
“If we say we are going to be the best in Asia, nobody believes it,” said Hasegawa, who set his team’s realistic objective to make the top three in the Asian Championship so it can advance to the final world qualifying round for the Olympics (the second- and third-place teams go through to this stage).
Hasegawa added that his ultimate goal is to develop the national squad and get it ready to genuinely compete for spots in the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics.
Watanabe, a student-athlete at George Washington University, will not play for Japan in the Asian Championship because he has to attend a summer semester back in Washington D.C. But he already knows that he’ll soon have to be one of the men who leads “Hayabusa Japan.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure how much I can participate in national team activities while I’m at college. I just can’t foresee what the future holds,” said the 20-year-old Watanabe, who hopes to eventually play in the NBA. “But I want to be here as much as possible, and at the Tokyo Olympics. Japan shouldn’t just be satisfied to be in it as the host nation, but it’s going to be important for us to show that we can compete against the world. So to make that happen, I would like to work on my training at the university.”
It is uncertain whether Japan will automatically be given a spot in basketball at the 2020 Games at this point.
Hachimura, a 17-year-old player, hopes to follow Watanabe’s path by going to a U.S. college and then, hopefully, the NBA.
Hachimura is by far the most dominant player at Japanese high school level, and has led his Meisei High School of Sendai to consecutive Winter Cup national championships in the last two years. Hachimura was on the Japan team for the FIBA Under-17 World Championship last year and was the tournament’s leading scorer (22.6 points per game).
Hasegawa doesn’t expect Hachimura to excel immediately and make the final roster for the Asian Championship. But the bench boss believes that the 198-cm forward will eventually be a presence Japan cannot afford to be without.
“His potential is outstanding,” Hasegawa said of Hachimura, who has been more of an inside player but is presently working on his outside skills with a eye on playing in the U.S. “By putting him at a higher level, he can absorb a lot more things (than at high school). He’s one of the players who have to be our main players. We wanted to put him in a situation like this as soon as possible.”
Hachimura, who said he’s narrowed down his candidate American colleges, was the only Japanese player invited to play at the annual Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center in New York in April and is considered the next big thing on the Japanese men’s hoop scene.
Hachimura, who is scheduled to join the national team’s second training camp this Friday, was excited about practicing with Japan’s best players.
“I rarely have a chance to play with people that are bigger than I am,” said Hachimura, who was born to a father from Benin and a Japanese mother. “So I want to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Watanabe said he hadn’t seen Hachimura play, but often heard how good he is. Watanabe added that he wanted to help Hachimura’s transition to the U.S. in any way he could.
“He’s got height, and I hear that he’s good playing outside as well,” Watanabe said of Hachimura. “I really think he’s got so much potential. One of the reasons why I went to America was that I wanted to inspire others to do the same after me.
“I’m willing to give him advice, and hopefully we’ll play together at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, forming a high-level team.”
Japan has some really potent players like Watanabe, Hachimura and Togashi, who played for the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League last season. Hasegawa and his national team will still have to find answers. But those future stars are casting a bright ray of hope for the game in Japan.