Basketball

'Big Three' give Japan high hopes

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With star phenoms Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe on board, the Japan men’s national team has gotten its teeth into its training ahead of the FIBA World Cup, which will begin later this month.

The Akatsuki Five assembled a dozen players to start their first training camp late last month for the quadrennial event. But they are now genuinely ready to tune up for it with their full, 16-man roster as the two young, NBA-level players have finally joined the squad since the ongoing training camp, which began here on Wednesday and wraps up on Tuesday.

“Both of them are cheerful,” veteran point guard Ryusei Shinoyama said of Hachimura and Watanabe after a Friday practice, which was open to the media. “They are still young as players yet are working so hard. But we don’t care where you are coming from and we have been able to create a good mood with the entire team. Our team’s become even more cheerful than before.”

With Hachimura and Watanabe, plus naturalized Japanese Nick Fazekas on the same team, Japan has the potential to reach another dimension at the upcoming World Cup with their size, athleticism and skills.

Watanabe debuted in the NBA as a two-way signing with the Memphis Grizzlies last year, while Hachimura was selected by the Washington Wizards in the first round of June’s NBA Draft. Fazekas is a former NBA player as well and is one of the best players in the B. League.

All three competed during the Asian World Cup qualifiers, but the team never played with the trio all together.

Fazekas is the tallest player on the team at 210 cm, while Watanabe and Hachimura are 206 cm and 203 cm, respectively. At the World Cup, Fazekas, Hachimura and Watanabe are all predicted to be starters at the center, power forward and small forward positions, respectively.

“The three are all big and have a wide shooting range,” Shinoyama said. “That’s going to give us a lot of advantages.”

Shinoyama thinks that the trio will help shrink opponents’ defense so that it benefits Japan’s outside shooters such as Yudai Baba and Makoto Hiejima, giving them more space offensively.

Baba, who was one of the four Japanese players that competed in last month’s NBA Summer League in Las Vegas along with Hachimura, Watanabe and Hiejima, said that Hachimura has become a “way better” player than he was a year ago, when the two played together for Japan during the World Cup qualifiers. Hachimura played in four contests during the preliminaries, including a stunning upset of Australia in June 2018.

“He doesn’t have to give his 100 percent and is still able to play well enough,” Baba said of Hachimura. “And everybody else has to work really hard to keep up with him. He’s given a lot of inspiration to the entire team.”

Being a part of the national team gives Hachimura an irreplaceable feeling as well.

“Japan hasn’t had a lineup like this before, and I think, looking around the world, there are few teams that can form a lineup like this,” said Hachimura, who was a big reason more than 100 reporters attended the Friday practice. “We’re getting into the exhibition games with this lineup and I’m thrilled about it.”

Japan will have five warm-up games ahead of the World Cup, which will begin on Aug. 31 in China. It will take on New Zealand twice on Monday and Wednesday, while it will square off against Argentina, Germany and Tunisia afterward.

Japan opens its World Cup campaign against Turkey on Sept. 1 in Shanghai. The East Asians are grouped with the European nation, the Czech Republic and the United States in the first round.

Fazekas said that the addition of Hachimura and Watanabe will take Japan to another level.

“They’re obviously hard to guard,” Fazekas said. “But at the same time, they’re making plays at both ends of the floor. So they’ve definitely raised the level.”

Fazekas said that while Watanabe is a very good defender, Hachimura has phenomenal passing ability with his court vision. He added that the team is “probably even better” transition-wise with the growth of Baba.

“Yudai Baba is getting better and better,” said Fazekas, who averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds in six Asian World Cup qualifier games. “And from the transition standpoint, with him and Yuta running the sides and Rui running down the center, space is going to be there.

“You know, the more good players you have the more space there is. Look at teams like Team USA, and they have five All-Stars (and) who are you going to guard? So I think it’s going to be fun for all of us to be out there at the same time to just see the space.”

Scary moment

During Friday’s practice, Watanabe hurt his right ankle during a 5-on-5 scrimmage.

The 24-year-old forward displayed an agonized look on his face and eventually left practice on crutches. Watanabe was diagnosed with just a lightly sprained ankle.

During the previous recent training camp, starting point guard Yuki Togashi broke a bone in his right hand in Tokyo, forcing him to miss the World Cup.

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