Basketball

Fujioka blossoming into star, leader

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There is probably nobody else that shines as brightly as Manami Fujioka does in Japanese women’s basketball right now, and many believe that she has the potential to eventually transform into a superstar player.

The 23-year-old largely contributed to Japan winning its third straight Asian championship and was selected to the all-tournament team at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup in Bangalore, India, last late month.

Fujioka, a native of Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, insisted that she developed into a stronger player through a series of tough training camps that began in April leading up to the tournament.

A third-string point guard behind Asami Yoshida and Rui Machida going into the camps, Fujioka said that she had difficulty being on the same page with long-time national team players early on and it gave her some worries as to whether she would really be able to earn a spot on the 12-player roster for the Asia Cup.

But she did not back down. Fujioka and other youngsters set their motivation to work harder “to exceed” the team’s established senior players in the camps.

“That’s probably a little weird goal to set,” Fujioka said with a chuckle after a 103-71 loss to the Under-23 United States in the Under-24 Four Nations Tournament in Tokyo on Tuesday (Japan finished with a 1-2 record). “We younger players practiced with a mindset to try to outperform our senior players. That eventually paid off and we were able to come through coming off the bench (at the Asia Cup).”

Fujioka, who attended the University of Tsukuba, failed to make Japan’s Rio Olympics roster last year and it left a bad taste in her mouth. So her determination leading up to the Asia Cup was as high as anyone else’s.

“I had practiced extremely hard for the three months before the Asia Cup, and if I hadn’t done anything there, I thought I would regret it the rest of my life,” said the 170-cm Fujioka, who almost notched a triple-double with 19 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds in the semifinal win over China in Bangalore. “I was so disappointed that I didn’t get chosen for Rio and I absolutely wanted to make the team this time.”

Fujioka took over the starting point guard role in the semifinal and final for injured veteran Yoshida, and met the coaches’ expectations by guiding the team to two victories.

But Fujioka had little time to enjoy the Asia Cup glory. She quickly had to join the U-24 national team, which will play at the Aug. 19-30 University Games in Taipei.

In the Four Nations, Fujioka, a gifted penetrator with exceptional crossover moves, was far from her best form mainly because of the fatigue that carried over from the Asia Cup.

Despite her physical condition, however, U-24 team head coach Toshinobu Sato felt that Fujioka had a significant influence on the team.

“She’s having a positive impact on our other players,” Sato said of Fujioka, who averaged 6.3 points and 6.0 assists playing in Japan’s three games at the Four Nations. “They now see her as the standard they need to get to. And she gives them very good messages in our meetings, making them think that they can do it (like the top national team).”

As the captain, Fujioka understands her role as a leader on the team, too. She noted that the Tom Hovasse-led top national team captured the Asia Cup title and the U-19 national team successfully finished fourth at the World Cup in Italy late last month as well, and that the U-24 squad can certainly do something big as well.

“We were fourth at the last Universiade and I believe we can win a medal this time,” said Fujioka, who plays for the WJBL’s JX-Eneos Sunflowers. “I don’t know how our other players are thinking, but as I have competed at Asia (Cup), I know we can play on par with our Japanese basketball (peers). They have not seen it yet, so I would like to tell them we can do it.”

Fujioka said that several players from the U-24 squad for the last University Games have been called up to the top national team and their performance may impact the A team down the road.

“We need to be aware of the global stage more,” Fujioka said. “And if we improve our level from the lower categories, the A team will be a lot better team going forward.”

Japan fell to the eventual gold medalist U.S. 102-98 in double overtime in the semifinals at the last University Games in South Korea in 2015. Fujioka sent the contest into overtime with a game-tying driving layup.

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