Japan hunts Olympic gold from beyond arc

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With a small-ball approach, Japan’s women’s basketball team will try to achieve big things.

The Akatsuki Five wrapped up its first games of the year with a two-game sweep of Belgium in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sunday, with wins of 91-75 and 84-71.

It is certainly too early to predict what outcome the team could produce next year at the Tokyo Olympics. But the Tom Hovasse-led squad has developed its strategy in order to compete on par against the world’s elite countries, most notably the United States.

One of squad’s distinctive new tactics is “stretch four” and a 3-point shooting strategy on the offensive end. The “four” refers to the power forward, who usually plays near the basket. But by positioning the player outside, she can draw her defender away from the hoop, negating Japan’s size disadvantage and creating more space for the offense.

Hovasse, who had previously served as an assistant for the national team before taking over his current post in the spring of 2017, has stressed 3-point shooting as a way to score more effectively. The Colorado native essentially asks all his players, regardless of their position, to be able to shoot from behind the arc, an important element in the execution of the stretch four.

“If we want to win, this is how we should play,” the 52-year-old Hovasse said after Friday’s series opener. “We can make 3 pointers from the point guard position all the way through the center position.”

Hovasse had previously called for about 40 percent of his team’s shots to be 3-pointers. In the Belgium friendlies, the Japanese ladies exceeded that objective: Of the 111 shots they took in the two contests, 63, or 56.8 percent, were 3s.

Japan sank 30 of those shots for a shooting percentage of 47.6 from beyond the arc in the two games. Surprisingly, those shots came from 10 of the roster’s 15 players.

Guard Saki Hayashi shocked fans with her long-distance shooting ability. The catch-and-shoot player, who exhibited stellar off-the-ball movement to get open, nailed 10 3-point shots overall and was the top scorer in both games with 19 and 17 points, respectively.

The 23-year-old, a virtual unknown who made her top-flight national team debut in the series, said after the first game that she started working on shooting fast 3s at Hakuoh University, noting that the effort has paid off.

“I think Hayashi’s fitting in this (offensive) system,” said Hovasse, who briefly played in the NBA and competed in the Japan Basketball League.

For a long time, Maki Takada has been one of Japan’s best inside players. But in Hovasse’s new offensive system, she plays as a stretch four closer to the perimeter.

“We’ve worked on this since last year and all of us have been asked to shoot 3-point shots,” said the 29-year-old Takada, a forward/center.

“It’s given us more options (because we have more space on the floor) and I think it’s practical for us to play this way against bigger opponents from overseas.”

Hovasse and the Japan Basketball Association have set the lofty goal of winning gold at the 2020 Games with the new “Japanese way.” Takada, who serves as Japan’s captain, insists the team can reach that goal if the players carry out their coach’s instructions.

Meanwhile, much work remains before Japan can genuinely contend with the world’s elite at the Olympics. Japan’s defense in particular is in need of improvement, with the team’s lack of size a more significant factor there than on offense.

Japan’s opportunistic defending functioned well against Belgium, making 19 steals and forcing 37 turnovers in the series.

Ranked No. 10 in the world, Japan’s reliance on aggressive defense and ball hawking demands constant movement by the players, which requires stamina and depth on the bench.

In the Belgium series, Japan demonstrated that depth. The team no longer depends on several core stars; its bench players are now an integral part of the squad and are expected to contribute.

This was exemplified in Sunday’s game. Hayashi was the only double-digit scorer for Japan, yet the team had 11 other players with points on the score sheet.

The team kicked off its series of training camps in Tokyo in early April. But Hovasse said it was the weekend’s series that allowed him to genuinely understand the personalities and qualities of newcomers like Hayashi and Stephanie Mawuli.

“Japanese basketball is deep, whether it’s the 1 position, 2 position or 3 position,” Hovasse said, emphasizing the emergence of his new players. “I’m excited about (our potential).”

It must be said that Belgium was missing some of its core players who competed at last year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup, in which the Europeans advanced to the semifinals.

But the same can be said of Japan, which was without former WNBA forward Ramu Tokashiki as well as athletic forwards Evelyn Mawuli and Monica Okoye due to injuries. This did not stop the host from performing as well as it did in the two-game series.

Many Japanese players left Mito far from satisfied, knowing they will have to improve plenty before they can legitimately contend for Olympic gold.

The team may hold another training camp in August, the same month Japan will compete in a pre-Olympic test event at Saitama Super Arena. After that, the Akatsuki Five will look for a fourth consecutive title at the FIBA Asia Cup in the fall.

Whatever issues remain, at least Japan showed that it could potentially send a shockwave through women’s basketball with the new Japanese way.

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