Basketball

Fujioka building big reputation

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

She is big, strong, tough, smart, and can do everything.

Youngster Manami Fujioka could be the next floor leader and star guard for the Japan women’s national basketball team.

It’s only been one year since she graduated from the University of Tsukuba, but Fujioka has already proven herself as a player in Japan. She’s been on the national squad in almost every age category, and has led her teams to respectable results at international tournaments.

But Fujioka, who joined the Women’s Japan Basketball League powerhouse Jx-Eneos Sunflowers last year, has found that Japanese basketball’s highest level, the WJBL and national team, is a different animal.

Unlike players in the men’s B. League, most of the top WJBL players begin playing in the league right out of high school. So Fujioka is a rare case.

“Since I joined Jx out of college, I had a lot of confidence and thought that I would be able to do well,” the 23-year-old Fujioka said after a practice at the national team’s ongoing training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Tuesday.

“But the W League wasn’t that easy. Plus, you have to fully use your best players at point guard, and you have to come through on your own as well. So it was tough.”

Nevertheless, Fujioka gained playing time for the Sunflowers (15.2 minutes per game in 26 games, mostly coming off the bench), who captured their ninth-straight WJBL championship this past season under current national team head coach Tom Hovasse.

Competing for a place with star teammates on a team that is expected to win, Fujioka, who averaged 3.8 points and 3.6 assists for the Sunflowers in the 2016-17 campaign, has no regrets about choosing to join the club because it maximizes her chance to be the best player she can be.

It has been particularly useful for her to get a close look at point guard Asami Yoshida, a three-time WJBL MVP and a longtime national team player, on and off the court every single day.

“I’m glad,” Fujioka said when asked if she feels fortunate to spend more time with Yoshida on the national team. “She’s an assist leader (at the 2010 FIBA World Championship) and is someone who has produced concrete results. So whether it’s her skills or how she spends her time off the court, my eyes are drawn to her. I have the utmost respect for her.”

Similarly, Yoshida has nothing but praise for Fujioka. The 29-year-old believes Fujioka has the ability to become the main guard for “the Akatsuki Five” at the Tokyo Olympics, which is her target.

Yoshida, who could easily still play for the national team at the next Summer Games herself, added that Fujioka still has tons of potential that she has not yet tapped.

“She can do no-look passes, for instance,” Yoshida said of Fujioka’s hidden skills. “But if she keeps getting better and eventually displays her talent, I think she’s going to be a world-class guard.”

Hearing those words spoken about her, Fujioka widened her eyes and exclaimed, “Is that right!?”

Fujioka almost idolizes Yoshida and the veteran is the person she has looked up to the most.

But Fujioka is not going to stay behind Yoshida in the pecking order forever. One day, she wants to overtake her and genuinely become an elite player.

“I do respect (Yoshida),” said Fujioka, whose speed and powerful penetration skills may already be better than Yoshida’s. “But I want to surpass her. I don’t want to even let others do it. I want to do it myself. That’s one big motivation for me.”

Hovasse, an American, values Fujioka’s ability as a basketball player as well and has sometimes been hard on her since she joined Jx.

“She’s really a hard worker,” said Hovasse, who left the Sunflowers’ head coaching job to become Japan’s bench boss this month. “I was frustrated this past season because she wasn’t progressing as fast as I thought she would. But she never gave up. I tested her a lot this past season, on purpose. I could see her confidence slipping, but that’s part of growth. She needed it.”

Now Hovasse thinks Fujioka is already “near the top level in Japan,” and he echoes Yoshida’s sentiment that the young guard could have a chance to be a world-class player.

“She’s got all the skills that you need, all of them,” he said.

The sky is the limit for Fujioka, and she seems to have big ambitions. When asked if she wants to play abroad, she humbly said that she needs to firmly accumulate experience every season in the WJBL.

But at least Fujioka is excited about possibly playing against WNBA players soon. After making the cut from the 18 players that are assembled for the current training camp to 15, the Japanese team will travel to Seattle, Dallas and San Antonio to play exhibitions against those cities’ WNBA teams next week as a part of its preparation for July’s FIBA Asia Cup (qualifying for next year’s FIBA World Cup).

“I’m extremely excited about it,” Fujioka, a Chiba Prefecture native, said of the trip. “We are going to play against some of the superstars that I’ve only seen on television. (The WNBA) is somewhere everyone aims at and we can play against them. It’d be crazy for me to just watch them play, but it’s even crazier that I might actually play against them.”

Hovasse said that playing against WNBA point guard would be “a great test” for Fujioka.

“If she does well, I guarantee you, she’s going to start thinking, ‘Maybe I can play in the WNBA,’ ” he said. “If she doesn’t do well, then she’s going to probably think, ‘I need to get better.’ So this type of experience is great for girls like that.”

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