Nick Fazekas could be a difference-maker for the Akatsuki Five, who are desperate for a win in the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.
The 33-year-old big man donned the jersey of the Japan men’s national team for the first time during a two-game exhibition series against South Korea in Tokyo and Sendai this past weekend.
Fazekas didn’t fall short of the fans’ high expectations either, especially in the first contest at Ota City General Gymnasium. The 210-cm player racked up 28 points and 13 rebounds, both of which were team highs.
“It was an awesome feeling,” Fazekas said after Japan’s 88-80 win in Tokyo on Friday night. “It was fun to be with those guys. I kind of felt like (I was) playing with an all-star team.”
The Colorado native, who became a Japanese citizen in late April, could only manage 12 points and eight rebounds in the 99-87 win at Xebio Arena on Sunday, partly because of the South Koreans’ scouting effort.
Head coach Julio Lamas has added Fazekas and 20-year-old Gonzaga University forward Rui Hachimura as his team’s latest big attractions, adding much-needed height and athleticism going into the final two games of the first round of the Asian qualifiers.
Japan is on the verge of elimination from the qualifiers. The team will take on Australia in Chiba on June 29 and Taiwan away on July 2. Japan has gone 0-4 in the four-team Group B, from which three teams will advance to the second round.
Veteran point guard Ryusei Shinoyama and shooter Naoto Tsuji know Fazekas better than anyone else on the national squad, as the three have played together on the Kawasaki Brave Thunders of the B. League for the last six years. So to them, there was nothing eye-opening about Fazekas’ performance.
“To me, Nick showed us what he normally does,” Shinoyama said of the league MVP and leading scorer of the 2016-17 season. “He’s a player who gives you nearly 30 points on average. He will help us in scoring and rebounding, which Japan has desperately needed. I’m glad that such a dependable player like him has joined us.”
Japan is last in points per game at 70.5 in the group. It has also been outrebounded in every game.
Many other national team players acknowledge how good Fazekas is too, as they have faced him as opponents since he arrived in Japan in 2012.
But diminutive star point guard Yuki Togashi said he has been convinced of Fazekas’ greatness even more now that they have played together since the team’s training camp kicked off at the beginning of this month.
Togashi insisted the addition of Fazekas and Hachimura has given the team a big upgrade.
“We can say with confidence now that we can play on par with any team in Asia with these two men,” Togashi said. “That said, I should be able to combine even better with them as we still have two more weeks (until the Australia game).”
Joji Takeuchi stated that Fazekas would be “a big weapon” for Japan because even if he does not score himself, he can create space for others by drawing defenders.
“He and I play at the 4 and 5 positions, and hopefully I can bring out the best out of him,” Takeuchi said.