Basketball

Akatsuki Five stars Watanabe and Hachimura ready to enjoy Iran showdown

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura had fun playing together on the Japan men’s basketball team for the first time during Thursday night’s victory over Kazakhstan.

On Sunday, the two star forwards agreed that they would like to continue to have fun — and deliver another win — against Iran the following day in the second round of FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.

“It was my first game playing for the Japanese national team in a long time,” Watanabe said of the 85-70 triumph in Almaty.

He’ll have a supportive crowd at Ota City General Gymnasium, which is expected to be packed when Monday’s contest tips off at 5:10 p.m.

“It means a lot to play in Japan. I’m thrilled about this opportunity,” added Watanabe, who signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies this summer.

Hachimura echoed Watanabe’s sentiment: “As we played in the (Kazakhstan) game, I was thinking that I always wanted to play with players like (those on the) team. Finally it happened and I had so much fun.”

The Gonzaga University forward had a game-high 24 points against Kazakhstan, followed by Watanabe, who put up 17.

The Julio Lamas-coached Akazuki Five overcame the absence of star center Nick Fazekas. The 33-year-old American-Japanese player, who debuted for Japan in June, is recovering from surgery to remove a corpora libera in his left leg and will not be available on Monday.

Iran, which ranks No. 25 in the FIBA rankings, will not have two of its best players. Center Hamed Ehadadi and forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami did not make the flight to Tokyo for reasons that have yet to be announced.

According to Lamas, that’s no reason to take the Iranians lightly.

“(Iran’s) players have essentially played together for the last eight years,” the Argentine bench boss said of the West Asian nation. “They have played at some of the bigger competitions like the Olympics. They have taller players and size. Whether it’s rebounding and pick and rolls, they are a very competitive team in many different aspects.”

Japan, has posted a 3-4 record in Group F, fourth behind Australia, Iran and the Philippines. Group E is the other pool in the round and the top three teams from each will earn spots in next summer’s FIBA World Cup in China. The better team of the fourth-place teams will also qualify.

Monday’s game will also be the last chance for Japan to get a win with their best players. Both Hachimura, who will return to the U.S. to participate in the college basketball season, and Watanabe, who will be busy with his obligations for Memphis, will be unavailable for the remainder of the second round. For now, the Akatsuki Five are focused on the present.

“We play one game at a time,” said Lamas. “We’re not thinking about anything other than our next game.”