It all started with an email written by his mother.
One that could end up with him representing her native country, Japan.
Hugh Hogland, who has been practicing in training camps with the Japan provisional men’s national team for the upcoming William Jones Cup in Taiwan, is thrilled to have this opportunity.
Hogland was born to an American father, Matthew, and a Japanese mother, Sanae Watanabe, in Hawaii. Because of his background, the 20-year-old feels a connection to both the United States and Japan.
But that changed slightly after the Japan Basketball Association spotted him and called him up.
“I’ve always felt more connected to here once I got the call-up and saw all these other good players,” said Hogland, who made his NCAA debut for the University of Portland in the 2018-19 season after redshirting the previous year, at Tokyo’s National Training Center on Wednesday. “It was kind of walking into a perfect situation, I guess. I mean, I like being here, I’ve always looked forward to coming back because it’s so much fun.”
The first time Hogland’s name was printed on Japan’s roster was for a development training camp in Kumamoto last January. He was virtually unknown at the time.
Since taking over his current position in 2016, JBA technical director Tomoya Higashino has constantly been on the lookout for young talent that could play for Japan. But the discovery of Hogland, who in Japan is better known by his Japanese name, “Hyu Watanabe,” went a little differently.
The 207-cm power forward said his mother sent an email inquiry to the JBA to see if her son might have a chance to play for Japan.
“We also emailed the (Japanese) volleyball program here when I was doing volleyball before switching over to basketball. But the volleyball program was like, ‘If you don’t understand Japanese, it’s kind of tough.’ Basketball, they opened the door and said like, ‘Yeah, come try out, we’ll see what your level is at,’ ” said Hogland, who played both basketball and volleyball in Hawaii until he graduated from high school, with a smile.
“(Japan head coach) Julio Lamas, (assistant) coach Herman (Mandole) and Higashino-san came down to Portland to see me practice. And then, it was just like, ‘We could invite you to Kumamoto and see what you’ll do.’ It’s just gone from there.”
With his move from Hawaii to Oregon to compete for an NCAA Division I program, Hogland had a “big realization” that changed him as a player. While Hogland had been a top-level prep talent in Hawaii and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser State Player of the Year as a junior in 2016, he learned the college game is much more difficult. He realized during his redshirt year at Portland that he was no longer the biggest and best player on his team and had a long way to go.
But he held his head up high and thought about how he could evolve as a player.
“What I (can) do now, it’s being on the court and (making) other players better,” Hogland said. “If you make others better, the coaches recognize that and you have a better chance (to play).”
Mandole, who is overseeing the development training camps and the squad for the Jones Cup, said Hogland would provide Japan with an advantage due to his size and athleticism.
“One of the things that he’s improved is, he wasn’t so great at his low-post game previously,” the Argentine said. “But he’s shown his development in it at this year’s training camps.”
Last season, the Portland Pilots, coached by former NBA guard Terry Porter, posted a woeful 7-25 record (0-16 in the West Coast Conference, where they competed against Rui Hachimura and Gonzaga). Hogland averaged 4.3 points and 3.5 rebounds playing in 15 games, including one start.
Most of the players assembled for the ongoing training camp are up-and-comers who still have plenty of room to grow — sixteen of the 21 players are aged 25 or younger. What’s more, all are considered strong contenders to make the top national team after the 2019 FIBA World Cup and Tokyo Olympics.
But Hogland has not abandoned the possibility of playing for the Akatsuki Five’s “A” team in September as well as next summer at the Tokyo Games.
“Definitely, it’s (my) goal make this year’s team. I’m going try to do whatever I can to make it,” he said, when asked about the possibility. “But at the same time, I recognize we have a lot of great players here, like (Nick) Fazekas, (Rui) Hachimura, Avi (Koki Schafer), (Joji) Takeuchi. . . .They are all good big men. It’s going to be hard to make the team.
“But if I just show up, play my game and it’s up to the coaches, that’s all I could do.”