Basketball

Talented Naoki Uto ready to grab long-awaited national team chance

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With his exceptional height and confidence, Naoki Uto could add a new dimension to the Japan men’s national basketball team.

Standing at 189 cm, Uto is by far the tallest point guard that Japan coach Julio Lamas has called up for his preliminary squad, which is currently working toward the first Asian qualifier for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. None of the other point guards on the provisional squad is over 178 cm (the popular Yuki Togashi is 167 cm).

In addition to his height, Uto also has phenomenal individual skills in both scoring and making assists.

Uto first joined the Toyota Alvark (now called the Alvark Tokyo) late in the 2013-14 season of the NBL — which eventually merged with the bj-league to form the B. League — through the league’s “early entry rule” as a senior for Senshu University.

Even though he was part of a deep Alvark squad, the club’s then head coach, Don Beck (currently the bench boss for the Toyota Antelopes of the Women’s JBL), would say that Uto was ready to play at the highest level.

But before last month, Uto had never been given a chance to play for the national “A” team.

The 26-year-old said, however, that Argentine Lamas “could not overlook” him given his numbers and performances over the last couple of years with his current club, the Toyama Grouses.

Uto won the assist title with 4.3 per game in the B. League’s inaugural season last year. He currently leads the league with 6.5 assists and is seventh in scoring with 15.3 points per contest (No. 1 among Japanese) for the Grouses, who have gone 5-8 and are in fourth place in the B. League Central Division.

Though the squad will be narrowed down to 12 in a couple of weeks’ time, before it takes on the Philippines in its World Cup qualifying opener on Nov. 24 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gymnasium, Uto certainly knows what he is expected to bring to the table for the Akatsuki Five. He thinks that he can contribute to the team with his height both offensively and defensively as point guard.

“I have the size, that’s where I have an edge over our other guards,” said Uto, who represented Japan at the 2013 University Games in Kazan, Russia, after Tuesday’s practice at Tokyo’s National Training Center. “I can probably be a better defender. And I can use my speed when the team plays at faster tempo as well.”

Lamas, who has an reputation as one of the best coaching maestros in Argentine basketball, spoke highly of Uto’s phenomenal talent.

“His playing style and height will benefit the national team,” Lamas, 53, said through an interpreter. “He has the creativity that other players don’t have, and he can make shots, too.”

Lamas also regards height as one of the issues Japan will have to overcome going forward.

Meanwhile, Uto has used his own defiant spirit to drive him to improve. The point guard is required to be the game manager in Japan, but Uto has not been that type of player throughout his career. He acknowledges that there have been teammates and coaches who don’t appreciate his style.

“It’s been said about me, ‘non-Japanese coaches might like him but Japanese can’t handle him properly,’ ” Uto said. “Or, when I was in college, people said things like, ‘he tries to score too much, he’s selfish.’ “

Nevertheless, Uto has no intention of changing his game. And now that has paid off with a place on the provisional national squad and a legit opportunity to play in World Cup qualifying.

Actually, he claims donning the national team jersey was never his goal, but becoming one of the top players in the country was.

Competing for a place on the national squad would certify that he has achieved that.

“I want to prove that I can do it (play for the national team) by persisting in my style of play,” the Aichi Prefecture native said.

Uto was given a league award for being “the most handsome player” through voting on social network platforms last year. As pleased as he was about it, that has actually served as another motivating factor to improve as a player.

“I’ve been confident about my own skills,” Uto said. “But it was like, my popularity prevailed before I got the chance to showcase them. So I’ve worked hard to get better so that it wouldn’t just be said about me that I’m just a popular guy.”

Japan is in Group B along with the Philippines, Australia and Taiwan in the first World Cup qualifier.

According to the Japan Basketball Association, Japan has lost to the Philippines in their last five meetings, with its last victory coming in 2003.

Japan, which is No. 50 in the FIBA rankings, will travel to Adelaide to face world No. 9 Australia on Nov. 27.