Basketball

Ex-NBA big man Nick Fazekas targets round of 16, offers advice to Rui Hachimura

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

That the Japan men’s national team won eight games in a row after a 0-4 start in the Asian Qualifiers to secure a spot in the FIBA World Cup was one of the best things that have ever happened to the country’s hoop scene.

But without veteran big man Fazekas, this accomplishment probably wouldn’t have been achieved.

The 211-cm center, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen in April 2018, helped turn the table for the Akatsuki Five by playing in six contests during the eight-game winning streak in the continental preliminaries.

Some people exaggeratedly called the 34-year-old “a savior” for Japan.

” ‘Savior,’ (and) stuff like that, is a pretty serious term,” Fazekas told The Japan Times, when asked how he felt to be called that during a recent national team training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center, laughing.

Fazekas humbly described it as “a team effort.”

“And it’s kind of like a train,” Fazekas said. “I mean, once it got going, it’s hard to stop.”

There is skepticism about Japan’s prospects at the World Cup, but Fazekas insisted that he would like to reach the “round of 16,” meaning advancing as one of the top two Group E teams in the four-nation first round.

“Maybe people can call me a savior if we somehow get to the round of 16,” Fazekas said.

Despite his heroics during the Asian qualifying, Fazekas has hinted that he would be sort of a sidekick going forward, including the World Cup and next year’s Tokyo Olympics. He said that it would be Rui Hachimura’s team.

“Rui’s the most talented player we have,” Fazekas said. “I mean, if Rui’s not going to play well, we are not going to win. We’re obviously here to play well to win, but at the same time, if some of us have mediocre games and Rui picks up the slack, we can still win. But if Rui’s not going to play well, it’s going be to hard for us to win. That’s kind of what I meant.”

But Fazekas is not going to let the Washington Wizards rookie shoulder all the pressure at the World Cup. He added that as much as Hachimura accomplished already, the ex-Gonzaga University star has way more basketball to play in his career. Which is why Fazekas tries to help him understand that.

Fazekas’ message?

“Look, this isn’t the finish line. This is just the beginning ” the 34-year-old said, revealing his words of wisdom to Hachimura. “You’re 21 years old. There’s a lot more ahead of you. There’s a lot more basketball ahead of you.’

“So I just try to encourage him to understand that he’s just scratching the surface of how good he is, and not to let people pressure him. It’s not fair to him, because it’s not a one-man team. There’s 12 of us and I would like to take some of the pressure off of him. I’m sure other guys would like to as well.”

The former University of Nevada player does not take anything for granted in Japan’s quest to succeed at the World Cup. Rather, he thinks his team will have to “perform at a really high level” to accomplish the round of 16 objective.

“I would say we are going to probably play close to pretty much perfect. We are going to have the ball bounce our way,” he said.

The Colorado native has played for numerous clubs in different nations (Belgium, France and the Philippines) plus the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers. But donning a national team jersey is certainly special for him.

“The whole country is paying attention (to the team). It’s different in a sense. It carries a lot more weight. It carries a lot more eyes on you,” said Fazekas, who arrived in Japan in 2012.