The Japanese men’s national basketball team needs to prove it can be more competitive in order to secure a spot at the Olympics in Tokyo, and there’s no time to waste.
But the present situation might be a cause for concern.
With a few weeks to go before a big international tournament, the Akatsuki Five is still waiting for its new head coach to arrive.
The Japan Basketball Association announced in April that Argentine Julio Lamas would assume the role, but would not be able to begin coaching the Japanese squad until he finished he duties with San Lorenzo de Almagro in the Argentine league.
San Lorenzo is currently playing in the league finals, and leads the best-of-seven series 2-1. That’s a good thing for the Japanese national squad, because it proves Japan is getting a good coach.
The bad thing is, however, that his arrival to Japan has kept getting pushed back.
“I don’t know if you can call it anxiety, but I think we have a sense of urgency,” star point guard Yuki Togashi said after a team practice at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Wednesday. “We know this is what’s been expected, but having a new head coach at this point, as we have a tournament that could affect our status for the Olympics in a month, and having had to practice without the new coach, it’s giving us some challenges, to be honest. But as players, we will just have to focus on what we have to do given the circumstance.”
The Japanese national team will compete at the FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut from Aug. 8-20.
Japan may not have too much to worry about, since 14 of the 16 teams competing will advance to the first round of the 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifying, which will begin in November. So the Japanese are not exactly on the verge of missing out on a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
But Togashi, a former member of the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League (now known as the NBA G League), warned his teammates that Japan needs to have a good showing at the FIBA Asia Cup in order to gain some momentum as they look toward the Tokyo Games.
Togashi said just barely finishing in the top 14 won’t be good enough for Japan’s Olympic hopes.
“We are obviously looking to win the championship. But we want to play better as well,” the Chiba Jets guard added.
For roughly the last six or seven months, the Japanese national team has been led by interim head coach Luka Pavicevic, and the Serbian was relieved from his duty after last month’s East Asia Championship.
With the coaching change, Japan will now have to play a different style of basketball.
As Lamas has yet to arrive, Argentine Facundo Muller is serving as a temporary coach and teaching the Japanese players the style Lamas wants to play.
Togashi described Lamas’ game as “pretty much opposite” from Pavicevic’s.
Togashi said, for instance, that defensively Pavicevic did not want his players to allow opponents to take 3-point shots, but that Lamas does not want to let opponents go for layups.
“We all know that your game will change depending on your coach, and this is what’s been expected,” Togashi said. “So we want to make sure that we make the adjustments.”
Versatile youngster Yudai Baba said that while Pavicevic emphasized trying to score from pick and rolls offensively, Lamas asks the players to pass the ball a lot more and try to find the open man.
“I’m still looking to get used to (Lamas’ game), but we know that it’s a global-standard type of basketball, so we have just got to adjust to it,” said Baba, a 21-year-old University of Tsukuba player who will begin playing for the B. League’s Alvark Tokyo next season while still a college senior.
Assistant coach Kenichi Sako said Lamas told him that he doesn’t yet have a full grasp of the Japanese players’ abilities, and is requesting that Sako provide detailed information about them.
Yet Sako, a former star point guard in the Japan Basketball League, was confident that the style of basketball Lamas plays “would fit” the Japanese national team.
Before the FIBA Cup of Asia, Japan will play a pair of exhibition games against Uruguay at Aoyama Gakuin University on July 29 and 30.