The provisional Japan women’s national basketball team made a two-week trip to the United States from April 30 to play some practice games against WNBA squads, and the players and coaches believe it was an important experience.
During the team’s stay in the U.S., the “Akatsuki Five” traveled to Dallas, San Antonio and Seattle and played against WNBA clubs in each city.
Japan head coach Tom Hovasse said after a team practice on Monday that his squad played a 30-minute practice game against the Dallas Wings, competed against the San Antonio Stars in a more formal exhibition game, with WNBA referees, then wrapped up the expedition with scrimmages against the Seattle Storm.
Hovasse, 50, said the team did not play hard enough in Dallas, and he scolded his players, and that they played better in San Antonio and Seattle.
“We’ve been continuously practicing, but wanted to play against bigger players,” Hovasse said at Tokyo’s National Training Center. “I got angry at our players after our game with Dallas, but overall we got better than we were before we went to the States.”
By competing against bigger players, Japan acknowledged the importance of playing physically.
“Each and every one of us earned a great deal of experience through our trip to the States,” veteran point guard and team captain Asami Yoshida said. “We realized anew that we need to play fast and physically, boxing out harder for rebounds.”
Point guard Manami Fujioka, who said before flying to the U.S. that she was excited to see WNBA players in person, believes she was able to perform even better than she thought she would against WNBA competition.
“I was thinking maybe I would be completely shut down,” Fujioka said. “But I was able to do things like driving in and passing a little.”
Fujioka, one of the young prospects for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, added that she was impressed by the skillsets of the WNBA players.
“A little different from Japanese players, their guards were using through-the-legs dribbling more and were better at keeping the ball,” the 23-year-old said.
Since the U.S. trip, Hovasse and his national squad has invited Corey Gaines to be a guest advisory coach. The 51-year-old, who has served as an assistant under Jeff Hornacek with the New York Knicks since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, has been asked to install some new fast-tempo offensive plays to the Japanese women’s offense.
Gaines, whose mother is of Japanese descent, was invited by the Japanese team to perform the same role a year ago. But he says that fast-tempo offense evolves and keeps evolving.
“Back home, we call it ‘amoeba,’ which has no shape, no form,” Gaines said. “You can be in any shape or form. And also, the other analogy we have for it is, it’s water. You pour water into a cup, it turns into a cup. It pours into a bowl, it turns into a bowl. But it’s water. Same stuff, but it turns, it changes. That’s what the fast break or the pace offense does. It changes all the time.”
Gaines said that it is tough to compare the team that played at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where Japan successfully advanced to the quarterfinal round, and the current provisional team, which has some new faces. But he emphasized that the Japanese women’s squad is now “the hunted,” not “hunters,” because of how it played in Brazil.
Gaines said that he was in Los Angeles for a Knicks workout when Japan and the U.S. squared off against each other in the quarterfinals. He did not have enough time to return home to watch the game, so he stopped by a restaurant.
In the end, the U.S. crushed Japan 110-64, but the first half was closer, with Japan trailing by only 10 points (56-46) at halftime.
“I’m close to the Japanese team,” said Gaines, who played for the Japan Energy Griffins in the Japan Basketball League during the 1997-98 season following stints at NBA clubs and others outside the U.S. “I’m also close to the American team because I know the players, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird. I’ve coached all of them before. And I’m sitting there in the restaurant, and trying to be neutral.
“But I see Japan, yeah, they were playing. And what I noticed was, a lot of the Americans (in the restaurant) were like 50-50. They were pulling for Japan, too. Because Americans like underdogs. They gained a lot of respect from a lot of people in the restaurant, because they were playing hard. Their pace, their intensity, the passion they had. They saw that. I thought that was amazing.”
Gaines, who has coached the Phoenix Mercury and led them to the 2009 WNBA championship, insists the Japanese national team has earned the respect of the basketball world.
Gaines said that during the team’s U.S. trip, the WNBA players knew who the Japanese players were.
“(Seattle superstar) Sue Bird didn’t play. She was on the bike because she came off an injury,” said Gaines, who was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1988. “She was looking for certain (Japanese) players, ‘Where’s so and so?’ She knew the players. And she was watching (the Japan-Storm game), because there was another player (that she was looking for). I can’t remember who that was. She was like, ‘She can shoot, she’s good at this.’ That’s respect.”
Gaines said that even Geno Auriemma, who led the University of Connecticut women’s team to 11 NCAA championships and the USA women’s national team to two gold medals as head coach, was impressed by Japan.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I love the way they play, I love how hard they play,’ ” Gaines recalled of his conversation with Auriemma. ” ‘I would like to play against them (representing UConn).’ “
The provisional Japanese squad has been holding a series of training camps since early April to get ready for this summer’s FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, where it enters as the two-time reigning champion.
The Asia Cup, which had previously been called the Asia Championship, will be played between July 23 and 29 in Bangalore, India. Japan has been allocated in a group with South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, and it will clinch a berth at the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup if it finishes in the top four.