No Rui Hachimura and no Yuta Watanabe?
Japan can’t exactly say “no problem.” At this stage, the team doesn’t want to take anything for granted.
With the fifth window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers right around the corner, the preliminary Japanese men’s national team wrapped up its latest three-day training camp on Wednesday at Tokyo’s National Training Center.
The Akatsuki Five, who have won four in a row after getting off to an 0-4 start in the qualifiers for next summer’s World Cup in China, will take on Qatar (2-6) on Nov. 30 and Kazakhstan (3-5) on Dec. 3 in Group F. Both games will be played at Toyama City Gymnasium.
Japan head coach Julio Lamas said his team has been trying to add new wrinkles while playing without two of its premier stars in Hachimura and Watanabe. Both are currently in the U.S., where Hachimura is playing for Gonzaga University and Watanabe, who signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, has been busy playing for both the NBA team and G League’s Memphis Hustle.
The duo contributed to Japan’s two victories during the previous qualifying window in September.
The Argentine bench boss said the team had crossed out the set plays used when Hachimura and Watanabe were on the squad and retrieved some that were applied when Nick Fazekas, another core player, was with the team during Window 3.
Fazekas missed Window 4 while recovering from ankle surgery he had during the summer.
“I think our players have been developing,” Lamas said. “The players we have will have to fill the holes for the players we won’t have this time. But we are intending to get in the upcoming window in the same level we’ve had.”
For the next two games, Fazekas, who was naturalized in April, will carry the responsibility of leading the team.
The 33-year-old, who joined the national team in June, had a pair of monster games in the two Window 3 victories. He had 25 points and 12 rebounds in a big upset of Australia while racking up 32 points and 11 rebounds against Taiwan.
Fazekas understands he’ll be looked upon as the main man for Japan once again.
“I mean, I talked to coach Lamas, too,” Fazekas said. “And he’s like, ‘Hey, some of the Japanese guys (have) got to sort of make up their mind and take over as well because we have some guys like (Yudai) Baba, (Makoto) Hiejima, and Daiki (Tanaka) that can definitely go out there and make plays, (that can) score 15, 16, 20 points for us, which is what we are going to need.
“So without Rui and Yuta, the roles change a little bit, just because it’s just going to be me. So I think some of these guys got to realize like, ‘Hey, if you can go get 12 or 14 (points), or if you can get eight or nine rebounds, go do it for us, because that’s what we are going to need in order to win.”
The 28-year-old Hiejima is a shooting guard who joined the Brisbane Bullets of Australia’s National Basketball League this year. But perhaps because he hasn’t yet been able to adjust to the style of play or overcome the language barrier, he’s played in just one minute of the team’s 10 games.
Despite his concerns about being rusty, Hiejima said he’s prepared as much as possible and will be ready for the qualifiers.
“Before I came back, I talked with coach Lamas on the phone and he told me that Rui and Yuta wouldn’t play this time,” said Hiejima, who had been Japan’s de facto ace scorer. “He said to me to be ready mentally and he wanted me to be part of our offense more, being more aggressive scoring-wise. So I want to do the best I can.”
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