Basketball

Japan still in hunt for 2020 berth

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Everyone that is associated with the Japan men’s national team and its fans breathed a huge sigh of relief after it managed to book a spot for the second round of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers with a win over Taiwan on Monday.

Maybe it was especially the case for coach Julio Lamas and Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya Higashino.

Higashino was in charge of bringing in a new bench boss for the national squad, which was desperate to have someone who could rebuild it and take it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The JBA chose Lamas, who is considered one of the best coaches in Argentina and guided its men’s national team to a fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics, last year.

But his arrival in Japan was delayed to late July because he had to complete his duty as coach of San Lorenzo de Almagro of the Argentine League. So he could not spend as much time developing the Japan national team as much as he would have liked before the World Cup qualifiers.

Higashino told The Japan Times in a phone interview on Thursday that as the person in charge of hiring the coach he felt “frustrated” during the four losses in the qualifiers.

Indeed, Japan got off to a 0-4 start, putting itself in a critical situation — possible elimination in the first round. That would have meant that it chances of competing at the 2020 Summer Games as a host nation were slight.

“That affected (building the team),” Higashino said of the shortage of preparation for the World Cup qualifiers. “We weren’t able to develop the maturity level of the team. I felt responsible and disappointed about it.”

Many think that the addition of naturalized center Nick Fazekas and Gonzaga University player Rui Hachimura saved the team. The two were put on the Japan roster before its final two games of the first round of the qualifiers.

That is undoubtedly true. They largely contributed to Japan’s two victories.

Under the guidance of the JBA over the last two years, progress had started to pay off.

After Japan failed to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, the JBA started developing the men’s national team and players of higher caliber.

It brought in former Montenegro national team coach Luka Pavicevic as a technical adviser and trained players with strong fundamentals, such as the pick-and-roll, in monthly short training camps even during the season.

Elsewhere, both Lamas and Higashino stressed that it was key that the team had a training camp of nearly four weeks leading up to the Australian and Taiwan games, which it had not been able to host because the players had been in their season.

The 54-year-old Lamas stated that as good as Fazekas and Hachimura are, it would not have been possible for his team to have the chemistry it displayed against Australia and Taiwan if it had not conducted a training camp of that length.

Fazekas said with a laugh that the players had to go through a lot of practice during the training camp.

“But it was good to build the chemistry and guys get to be around each other, got to know each other,” Fazekas, an MVP center for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, said after the 108-68 win over Taiwan on Monday night. “It was a fun month when you look back on it, a successful month. And we got the two wins.”

The four-week training camp perhaps helped install Lamas’ brand of basketball for the team even better.

Andrej Lemanis, the coach of Australia, said after the Boomers’ 79-78 loss to the Akatsuki Five on June 29 in Chiba that he thinks Lamas’ “influences are starting to become evident” and his players have begun understanding “how he wants them to play.”

Higashino credited the foundation of the B. League as well. The 47-year-old, a former assistant for the Japan men’s national team and coach of the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido (predecessor of the Levanga Hokkaido) and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (now called Sen-en NeoPhoenix), said that the players have gotten “tougher” both mentally and physically, competing in 60 games a year.

Japan will be in a six-team Group F with Australia, the Philippines, Iran, Kazakhstan and Qatar in the second round. There are two groups in the stage and seven teams overall will book spots in next year’s World Cup in China.

Japan is expected to go through tough battles, partially because Hachimura might not compete in it as he has school obligations at Gonzaga, while another phenom, Yuta Watanabe, is aiming to begin his pro career, possibly in the NBA.

“We will win out without Rui and Yuta, even with a margin of just one point,” Higashino emphasized. “We are going to keep winning in the second round and go to the World Cup. That’ll be our next step.”