Basketball

Teen phenom Chikara Tanaka looking to make mark with national team

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Chikara Tanaka is Japanese basketball’s latest boy wonder.

So what’s the difference between him and other phenoms like Rui Hachimura or Yuta Watanabe, who have crossed the Pacific Ocean to play in the United States?

His precocity.

Tanaka is only 15 years old. And he has already been called up for the provisional Japan men’s national team, which has set tongues wagging among hoop fans.

The Akatsuki Five are currently in a training camp for their next Asian qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

Japan, which is currently 0-2 in the first round of the qualifiers, will take on Taiwan in Yokohama on Feb. 22 and travel to face the Philippines three days later.

Tanaka, who was born to a Japanese mother and an American father, isn’t on the team for publicity. He can really play.

On Tuesday, when the training camp was open to the media at Tokyo’s National Training Center, Tanaka occasionally won one-on-ones against top guards like Ryusei Shinoyama and also knocked down some 3-pointers.

Tanaka said that he was holding back a little when he was first invited to the provisional national squad last November.

But a few months later, he focused on producing his best, trying to show who he really was as a player.

“It’s gotten easier for me to play here,” Tanaka said after Tuesday’s practice. “I was very nervous (in November). But I’ve gotten used to it here. I’ve been able to communicate (with my teammates) better and it’s taken my nervousness away.”

Power forward Ira Brown, who is a good English-speaking buddy with Tanaka despite the age gap (Brown is 35), said that his younger teammate still needs to learn a lot more, but has a good basketball IQ for his age and he likes his attitude on the court.

“I like the fact that he’s competing against grown men,” Brown said. “Because it’s going to make him better.”

Brown continued: “He works hard, he takes criticism really well, which is awesome, because a lot of players, they can’t take criticism. They kind of go into the shell. But you can joke around with him. He just has a good time with what he’s doing.”

Having now spent more time on the Julio Lamas-led national team, Tanaka also thinks that he has deepened his knowledge of the team’s style and strategies.

But Tanaka is far from what he could potentially be at this point. He said he has issues “here and there.” Among them, he said that physicality is one of the biggest priorities he needs to improve because it affects his game both offensively and defensively.

“When I try to attack the basket off a screen, I occasionally get pushed and I can’t do (what I want do),” the 184-cm guard/forward said of his offense (he said he’s grown by 5 or 6 cm in the past year, so he might be even taller now).

Tanaka continued that he needs to polish his individual skills as well, saying that Shoki Omura, the national team’s skill trainer and former ABA guard, pointed out that his left hand is “weaker” for dribbling.

Nevertheless, Tanaka does not want to waste any time, and he is not content just to gain experience practicing with the older national squad players. He wants to play for Japan as soon as possible.

“I think it will be a great experience if a junior high school student plays in an international game for the seniors. So I want to get in if I’m given a chance,” said Tanaka, who was born in Aomori Prefecture and raised in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. He attends Sakamoto Junior High School in Yokosuka.

A total of 18 players are currently on the provisional national team roster, which will be cut to 12 before the two upcoming World Cup qualifying games.

Tanaka, who guided the youth squad of the B. League’s Yokohama B-Corsairs to the runner-up spot in the B. League Under-15 Championship last summer, has another big goal in his hoop career: to become an NBA player.

In order to reach that target, Tanaka plans to go overseas to develop himself in a tougher environment.

“I decided to go overseas in the future when I was in elementary school,” said Tanaka, who may attend an overseas high school after graduating from junior high school this spring.

Tanaka has not been in the spotlight for long. But some people are already calling him the future of Japanese basketball.

It sounds like a burden for the boy. But Tanaka does not back away from the challenges awaiting him.

“I’m practicing hard every day so I can live up to those high expectations,” said Tanaka, whose favorite players include the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving.

“If I fail, I know that people are going to say, ‘Oh no, he’s not that good,’ and things like that. So the only thing I can do is to get better every day.”