Japan bolsters roster with Rui Hachimura, Nick Fazekas ahead of FIBA World Cup qualifiers

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s men’s national basketball team will have its back against the wall during the Asian qualifiers for next year’s FIBA World Cup.

The Japanese, however, are hopeful that the addition of a couple of stars will help turn the tables in their favor in the upcoming games.

Gonzaga University phenom Rui Hachimura and recently naturalized big man Nick Fazekas made the 24-man provisional squad for Japan’s remaining first-round games on June 29 and July 2.

Japan was winless in its previous four games in the four-team Group B and will be desperate for at least one win to try and keep its hopes alive in the qualifiers. The top three teams advance to the second round.

The Akatsuki Five will host Australia (4-0) at Chiba Port Arena in their first game and then travel to Taiwan. If Taiwan (1-3) beats the Philippines (3-1) and Japan falls to the world’s No. 10-ranked Boomers on June 29, Japan will lose the chance to advance.

Japan head coach Julio Lamas said he picked Hachimura and Fazekas in an attempt to “upgrade” the team’s height.

The Argentine would not get into details in terms of strategy for the upcoming games, including a pair of warmup contests against South Korea. But he insisted that the addition of Fazekas and Hachimura will help the struggling team.

“We all know how much they will be able to contribute to our team,” Lamas said.

Hachimura finished his second year with the Gonzaga Bulldogs this past season. The 203-cm athletic forward, who was named on the All-West Coast Conference first team for the 2017-18 campaign, is a player many believe could be drafted by an NBA club as early as next year.

A total of 12 players will make the final cut before the two World Cup qualifying games, and it would be the first time for Hachimura to compete for the top-flight national team.

“I believe that with me and Nick having joined this team now, we are able to help the team in rebounding with our height,” said Hachimura, who was part of the Gonzaga team that advanced to the NCAA title game against the University of North Carolina in 2017, his freshman season.

Fazekas, a Colorado native, surprised basketball fans here at the end of the B. League season in April by announcing he had become a Japanese citizen. The 210-cm former NBA player, who has played for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders for the last six years, won the scoring title and was the league MVP in the circuit’s inaugural 2016-17 season.

The 32-year-old said he “wished” he had been with the team when it was struggling to get a win in its previous four games, although he was in the process of obtaining his Japanese passport at the time.

Asked what he thinks he could bring to the table for the Akatsuki Five, Fazekas said that while he wants to guide the team with his scoring ability like he does for the Brave Thunders, he also wants to provide leadership.

“I think that’s my No.1 thing,” Fazekas said.

Point guard Ryusei Shinoyama said Fazekas has given “a sense of security” to the Brave Thunders, for whom the two have played together.

It’s huge that he can do that for the national team now,” Shinoyama said.

Besides Hachimura and Fazekas, Lamas selected some other notable fresh faces for his preliminary roster, such as a 20-year-old big man Avi Koki Schafer, who wrapped up his first season for Georgia Tech this past year.

Star domestic players who have played for Japan in its previous qualifying games, like B. League MVP Makoto Hiejima, point guard Yuki Togashi, and dunker Yudai Baba, made the provisional team, too.

Former George Washington University standout and forward Yuta Watanabe is on the roster as well, but he has not participated in the ongoing training camp in order to continue working toward a spot in the NBA.

Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya Higashino hinted Watanabe might return to Japan for the qualifiers depending on his NBA situation, including next week’s NBA Draft.

The Japanese men’s team, which is No. 48 in the FIBA rankings, has not been granted a spot by FIBA to participate in the competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It is said the country needs to make it to the World Cup in China to earn that spot.

Australia has already qualified for the second round with a 4-0 record. A pair of Milwaukee Bucks, Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker, will also compete for the Boomers this time.