Basketball

After injury setbacks, Manami Fujioka, Sanae Motokawa enjoying chance to compete for national team

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Competition can be a blessing.

Just ask Manami Fujioka and Sanae Motokawa.

While they are getting into tough battles to compete for roster spots on Japan’s 2020 Olympic roster, Fujioka and Motokawa are delighted to be running up and down the court at training camp for their own reasons.

Fujioka was once considered a strong candidate to be the team’s starting point guard at the Tokyo Games. But she suffered career-threatening injuries two years ago that raises doubts about that possibility.

After she helped the national team capture its third straight FIBA Women’s Asian Cup title and earn silver at the Summer Universiade in Taipei of 2017, Fujioka sustained a chip fracture and a ruptured tendon in her pelvis early in the 2017-18 Women’s Japan Basketball League season.

As a result, she competed in just two contests in the WJBL campaign that year.

Then, in the spring of 2018, Fujioka was called up for national team training camps despite the injuries, but she felt that she was no longer the same player.

“I thought there was no way I would get back to where I had been,” Fujioka said after the national team’s practice on Tuesday at the National Training Center, where it made preparations for a two-game exhibition series against Belgium. “And I even thought about retiring from the national team because I thought I wouldn’t have a place.”

What a difference a year made.

Fujioka is now full of energy. She also has a lot of motivation to play.

What happened?

She said that a chiropractorrecommended by Japan Basketball Association’s sports performance director Koichi Sato healed her pelvis.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Fujioka said with a beaming smile. “I was participating in half (the practices) a year ago.”

At point guard, arguably the deepest position on the national team, Fujioka faces tough competition from other players, including Rui Machida and Nako Motohashi.

But the 170-cm player wants to exhibit her own “color,” which is perhaps different from others, in order to ultimately win position battles.

In addition, Fujioka is trying to establish her own style on the hardwood after longtime national team star Asami Yoshida retired this spring.

Fujioka played with Yoshida on both the national squad and JX-Eneos Sunflowers in the WJBL, and the older point guard was always someone she tried to emulate.

While Fujioka acknowledged that she absorbed a lot of knowledge from Yoshida, Fujioka intends to grow out of her shadow and lead in her own way.

Fujioka said, for instance, that Yoshida led by example, but she is trying to be more vocal.

“I haven’t played as long as (Yoshida), but I want to actively speak to my teammates and lead them,” Fujioka said. “I believe that’s the way I should go.”

For the upcoming exhibition series, Motokawa, will don a national team jersey for the first time since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The 27-year-old has cherished her time at the squad’s training camps.

Motokawa, one of Japan’s best slashers at the 2016 Olympics, was away from the national team due to ankle and knee injuries since then. Motokawa, however, admitted she now feels great physically.

But she will not necessarily be playing the same way that she used to for the national team.

Akatsuki Five head coach Tom Hovasse stated that the shooting guard had possessed exceptional driving ability “to her left, but that was it.” The American added that Motokawa has started “using her head” more.

Motokawa said that she has been asked to become a more well-rounded offensive player, not just relying on drives to the basket and layups.

“So even when I could drive in, if I’m open outside, I go shoot a 3, for example,” the Chanson V-Magic player said. “Because we have to see our spacing, otherwise we can’t run our offense how we would like to run.”

Hovasse, an assistant under former head coach Tomohide Utsumi at Rio before assumed his current post in 2017, has tried to form his team with players, including bigs, that can shoot from behind the 3-point arc. Motokawa, for one, has worked on this task.

She insisted that she’s looking forward to seeing how well she fits in on the current national team while playing against Belgium.

“It’ll be the first international games for me in a while,” she said. “I didn’t play (for the national team) last year and haven’t played at international tournaments, so I don’t know how much I can do. But it’s fun to just think of what I would be able to do.”

Motokawa, who still maintains pride in her own driving skills, watched Japan edge Belgium 77-75 in a group-stage game at last year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup.

“I guess I can drive in against them,” Motokawa said.

And, of course, Motokawa only returned to the national team for a chance to compete in an Akatsuki Five jersey.

“Yes,” she said, responding to a question about whether she would aim to compete at the Tokyo Games. “That’s why I’m here. I want to challenge for the opportunity.”

For the Belgium series, Japan is missing some of its top players, including Ramu Tokashiki and Evelyn Mawuli, who are both out with injuries.

Belgium advanced to the semifinals and finished fourth at the aforementioned World Cup.

Japan, which was eliminated in the round of 16 with a loss to China at the World Cup, is No. 10 in FIBA’s latest world rankings. Belgium is 16th.

The first game tips off at 7 p.m. on May 31 and the second is set to start on June 2 at p.m. Both contests will be held at Adastria Mito Arena in Ibaraki Prefecture.