Makoto Hiejima energized by opportunity to compete for Brisbane Bullets

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Tochigi Brex’s signing of top guard Makoto Hiejima was one of the biggest moves to date in the B. League this offseason.

In fact, he was welcomed by hundreds of fans at an introductory news conference in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, a couple weeks ago.

But his workplace will not be there. It will be in Queensland.

One day after it was revealed that he signed a deal with the Brisbane Bullets of the National Basketball League in Australia and New Zealand, Hiejima said at a news conference at Tokyo’s National Training Center that he had decided to jump at the challenge with a now-or-never determination.

“I was thinking that it would be my last chance to make a move like this at my age,” said Hiejima, who turns 28 on Aug. 11. “Plus, there’s the (FIBA) World Championships and the Olympics after that.”

His days with the Brex were certainly short.

In fact, he is technically no longer a Brex player. Hiejima was released from his contract with the Brex when he signed with the Bullets.

With the Bullets, Hiejima will be classified as a local player under the league’s Asian player rule. Each club is allowed to allocate one Asian player besides three other spots for foreign players.

“Being a foreign player, I know that I will be asked to come up with results,” Hiejima said. “So I would like to play holding a sense of responsibility and determination.”

While with the SeaHorses Mikawa, Hiejima captured the B. League MVP award for the 2017-18 season. He turned pro as a SeaHorses player in 2013. So Hiejima feels the pressure on his shoulders to compete representing Japanese basketball.

“It’s been unprecedented that players in the B. League go overseas,” he said. “So I feel like if I won’t do well, that would shut the door for other players after me.”

The Fukuoka native confessed that he has both high expectations for himself and anxiety about playing playing in a league outside of Japan for the first time in his career. Part of the nervousness comes from his inability to speak English. But Hiejima also expressed confidence that he would be able to perform well enough against the bigger and stronger foes in the NBL once he steps onto the court.

Hiejima thinks that the level of Australian basketball, including in the eight-team NBL, is higher than in other Asian countries, considering the Oceania nation as part of it because it competes in same region for worlds. By competing under these circumstances, Hiejima acknowledged that he would develop himself further as a basketball player.

“When I play in the B. League, I usually match up against guys that are as tall as myself or guys that are shorter,” said Hiejima, who stands 190 cm. “But when I go to Australia, I will have more chances to play against players that are stronger and faster. That said, I think I have chances to polish my one-on-one game.”

Japan notched an important victory in late June, when the Akatsuki Five edged the Boomers, who finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, in a FIBA World Cup Asian qualifier game in Chiba. The hosts added naturalized player Nick Fazekas and Gonzaga University standout Rui Hachimura before the game and their presence helped secure a 79-78 victory.

Hiejima said that with Fazekas and Hachimura — and ex-George Washington University forward Yuta Watanabe could also join the team going forward — Japan’s frontcourt is on par with anyone else in the world, but the issue is now with the guards.

Hiejima revealed that he has talked with Andrej Lemanis, head coach for the Bullets and the Australia men’s national team , over the phone on a few occasions.

“I told him that I would like to step up as a player further toward the World Championships and Olympics,” Hiejima said. “And he told me that he would be able to give me the environment that I can develop myself.”

The Bullets were established in 1979. They have won three NBL titles.

Hiejima said that Japan national team bench boss Julio Lamas believes he will have success in the Southern Hemisphere.

The 2018-19 NBL season tips off on Oct 11 and the regular season continues through February. The playoffs are held in March.

Technically, Hiejima has a chance to play in the B. League this upcoming campaign. The league allows player registration at the end of February, so if Brisbane doesn’t make the postseason, Hiejima could sign with a Japanese team and compete for the remainder of the season here.

In that case, Hiejima would become a free agent. Buf if he does return to Japan in the upcoming season, he hopes to play for the Brex.

“I feel sorry for the fans that were looking forward to seeing me play for the Brex,” Hiejima said. “But it was revealed that I could go and play in another country if there would be an offer, and I believe the fans understand that.”

Hiejima said that he would join the Bullets at their training camp on Monday.