Basketball

Expectations rise for Japan at 32-team FIBA World Cup

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Making its fifth-ever appearance at the FIBA World Cup, Japan will dispatch arguably its best-ever squad on the global stage.

While rough challenges are awaiting the team, which will face some of the world’s elites in the 32-nation tourney in China, the Akatsuki Five are giving their home fans unprecedented high expectations because of the talent that the nation hasn’t previously seen.

Japan will take on Turkey (17th in the FIBA rankings), the Czech Republic (24) and the United States (1) in that order in Group E of the round-robin first round at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center. The top two teams in each of the eight groups will advance to another four-team group second round, from which the best two teams will proceed to the eight-team knockout round.

Japan, ranked 48th in the world, faces an uphill battle in its tournament opener against Turkey on Sunday. The Europeans have all-around NBA players such as small forward Cedi Osman of the Cleveland Cavaliers and phenomenal shooter Furkan Korkmaz of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The squad led by coach Julio Lamas presumably has its best chance to fair well and potentially post a win over the Czechs, whose best player is combo guard Tomas Satoransky of the Chicago Bulls. That game is on Sept. 3.

Clearly, more eyes will be focused on the action against Team USA on Sept. 5. Superstar after superstar, such as James Harden and Kyrie Irving, have withdrawn from the U.S. squad, but it still features some of the NBA’s best players, including Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz.

The 18th edition of the World Cup starts on Saturday in cities across China. The gold-medal game is set for Sept. 15 at Wukesong Sport Arena in Beijing.

It will be thrilling for Japanese hoop fanatics to see how well the nation’s latest stars fare against the aforementioned powerhouses while playing at the highest level of international competition.

Here are Team Japan’s can’t-miss, key players to watch at the World Cup:

Rui Hachimura, 205 cm, forward, Washington Wizards

The 21-year-old, who competed in four games during the Asian qualifiers, showed his confidence for the World Cup, saying “not many countries can form a lineup like ours and it’s going to be our strength both defensively and offensively.”

But Hachimura is unquestionably the centerpiece of the Japan team and it’s believed that he will decide his team’s fate at the World Cup.

Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe and Nick Fazekas — who are dubbed “Japan’s Big Three” — will share the hardwood for the first time in an official tournament in China.

“I want to lead the team by example,” said Hachimura, an ex-Gonzaga University player who became the first-ever Japanese first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft. “I’ve accumulated various experiences that my elder teammates haven’t and I want to contribute to the team with those.”

Yuta Watanabe, 208 cm, forward, Memphis Grizzlies

Once a lanky, modest boy at Kagawa Prefecture’s Jinsei Gakuen High School, Watanabe is now a stalwart with stronger mentality and one of the team’s best two-way players.

While Hachimura is undoubtedly the best player on the team and is expected to carry the workload, Watanabe is going to be a stabilizer with his size, length and defensive ability to shut down the opponent’s best scorer and leadership.

“When there’s a player like that (an ace scorer) on our opponents, I think I have to guard him,” the 24-year-old said. “And whether I can hold him or not could decide results for Japan. So I’m going to take the role with pride.”

Yudai Baba, 198 cm, forward, Alvark Tokyo

Baba has become an irreplaceable player with his exceptional speed and versatility. The team has a concern about its lack of size at point guard and it makes it harder at the global level for the Akatsuki Five to move the ball from the backcourt. Baba is able to chip in being a “point forward” to push the ball.

The Toyama native played in the NBA Summer League for the Dallas Mavericks and the experience has helped develop his skills and mentality.

“As I’ve experienced the Summer League, I’ve realized that if you play basketball as a sport, you’re not going to come through,” Baba said. “It’s a combat sport. You win or lose — you have to display the mentality, otherwise you’re not going to win.”

Makoto Hiejima, 193 cm, guard, Utsunomiya Brex

The elusive dribbler will be one of the halfcourt offensive threats for Japan. The 29-year-old may not be the quickest player on the team, but he has deceptive penetrating ability and a knack for making layups, which some call “Hiejima Steps.”

The Fukuoka Prefecture native, who was the team’s best offensive weapon during its 0-4 start in the Asian qualifiers, has not been as effective since guys like Fazekas and Hachimura joined and his defense is unreliable. But he has improved his 3-point shooting and remains one of the best perimeter players on the roster.

Other players on the China-bound squad: Nick Fazekas, 211 cm, center, Kawasaki Brave Thunders; Avi Koki Schafer, 208 cm, center, Shiga Lakestars; Kosuke Takeuchi, 209 cm, forward, Brex; Joji Takeuchi, 209 cm, forward, Alvark; Ryusei Shinoyama, 180 cm, Brave Thunders; Seiya Ando, 183 cm, guard, Alvark; Shuto Ando, 192 cm, guard, Nagoya Diamond Dolphins; and Daiki Tanaka, 194 cm, guard, Alvark.

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