YOKOHAMA – Is up-and-coming basketball player Chikara Tanaka going to be a Japanese Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry?
That is a hasty conversation to have about a 16-year-old, one who has a lot to prove down the road.
But at least it is fair to say that he is making a good first step toward accomplishing his ultimate goal to go to an NCAA Division I school and the NBA.
Tanaka, who graduated from Sakamoto Junior High School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in March, will cross the Pacific Ocean to enroll at IMG Academy.
It has already been reported that his next destination would be the private boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, that has produced numerous globally recognized athletes in basketball, football, baseball and golf, among other sports.
Speaking alongside IMG officials at a news conference on Wednesday, Tanaka said that he was excited about the challenge.
“I was surprised myself that I got a chance to go to IMG. It was hard for me to believe that was really going to happen,” Tanaka said. “But now I’m going to a top American high school. I will do the best I can on behalf of my family and Japan. I would like to work hard both on academics and basketball, and develop my humanity so I can contribute to improving Japanese basketball.”
Tanaka is set to depart for the United States in August to start attending school in the fall semester, which will begin at the end of the month.
Brian Nash, basketball director for the academy, said that Tanaka drew the attention from its officials when it held clinics in Japan last October. The player, who had competed for the youth squad of the B. League’s Yokohama B-Corsairs, hinted that he also had the option to go to the NBA Global Academy, a newly launched basketball training center in Canberra, Australia.
But he wound up jumping at the offer from IMG Academy, which offers its student-athletes top-class, state-of-art training facilities.
“I was watching a YouTube video of the IMG Academy with my older brother when I was about a sixth-grader,” said Tanaka, who had flown back from the NBA Global Camp in Treviso, Italy, which former George Washington University standout Yuta Watanabe attended, on the day of the news conference. “And I was jokingly telling my brother, ‘I’ll go to this place.’ That’s actually happening to me.”
The academy was founded as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978 and sports and entertainment company IMG purchased it in 1987. It currently has about 1,200 student-athletes and more than half of them are from outside of the U.S., from about 80 different countries.
Nash said that the basketball program, which has 11 boys and three girls teams, alone has players from 33 different nations. He added that roughly 40 percent of the basketball players are from outside of the U.S.
At IMG, there have been several Japanese basketball players before Tanaka, including Rina Hill, a former Louisiana State University guard who currently plays for the Toyota Antelopes of the Women’s Japan Basketball League and Wataru Igari, a point guard for the Fukushima Firebonds in the B. League’s second division.
The academy regards academics as important as athletics, while it also tries to cultivate rich personal experiences for its students.
Tanaka, who will start as a sophomore at IMG Academy, said that his academics have not been something he could be proud of, so he wants to make a greater effort in the classroom as well as in the gym.
The Yokosuka native, who was born to an American father and a Japanese mother and lived in Hawaii when he was a child, speaks English naturally, and Nash said that Tanaka doesn’t have to worry about the language adjustment. He stated that because Tanaka is bilingual it would be an advantage going to this new environment.
Chris Ciaccio, the academy’s vice president of marketing and sales, said that the academy chose the player primarily because of his basketball talent, but added that the institution was also impressed with the his mature personality. That said, Ciaccio insisted that Tanaka’s mission is “bigger than basketball” and that he would use the game as “a vehicle” to show people the significance of sacrificing yourself to accomplish your objectives.
Ciaccio said that those who come to the academy can get an American education and global experience, while it has experts in coaching that can provide its student-athletes with discipline both on and off the court and field.
“That combination is something that’s unique and that’s going to be difficult to find anywhere else,” Ciaccio said. “I would say that it’s probably the No. 1 biggest edge.”
The majority of Japanese hoop fans will be curious about how much Tanaka will be able to develop as a player in America.
Tanaka is exceptionally tall for a Japanese guard, standing 187 cm, and displays impressive dribbling and shooting skills for his age. But obviously, he might lose some of these advantages once he moves to the U.S.
Because of his individual skill set and scoring ability with his size, Tanaka could become more of a combo guard, playing both at the point guard and shooting guard positions, which his idols Irving and Curry do in the NBA. But even that is probably a little too premature.
Nash said that what the IMG Academy basketball program would first focus on is making him “a very good high school player” to give him a better chance to go to a better NCAA Division I school.
“We will have three years in high school, where he’s going to be in very, very tough environment every day,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy for him. He’s going to have some ups and downs. He’s going to have good days and bad days. But the way we train him, the way we prepare, he’ll get better every day, which will allow him to achieve his first goal to get a college scholarship.”
Tanaka was called up for a training camp of Japan provisional men’s national team during the first round of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers, last October. In January, he led the Japan Under-16 team to the championship at the Crystal Bohemia Cup in the Czech Republic and was named the tournament MVP.