Historically, the Japan men’s national basketball team has had limited opportunities to compete on the global stage.
For example, the team qualified for the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics and the 1998 FIBA World Championship, which was held in Athens. But the upcoming FIBA World Cup (its newer name), which starts on Saturday in China, marks the next time Japan qualified for one of the two premier global competitions. (As the host nation, Japan received an automatic spot in the 24-nation 2006 FIBA World Championship.)
This summer’s extravaganza is a 32-team field, with Japan returning to the fold after failing to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 editions, and Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey remembers vividly Japan’s last involvement in the FIBA World Championship. He served as an assistant coach alongside Japan bench boss Mototaka Kohama, the late godfather of Japanese basketball, in ’98. It was an experience that gives Casey a unique perspective about a past generation of Japanese players and the current squad that has revitalized the national program and reinvigorated fan interest throughout the archipelago.
Casey returned to Japan for the Akatsuki Five’s exhibition game against New Zealand on Aug. 12 at Chiba Port Arena and saw Washington Wizards rookie forward Rui Hachimura pour in a game-high 35 points in Japan’s victory. Days later, he spoke to The Japan Times by phone from his offseason home in Seattle about global hoops and Japan’s improved squad.
By playing pre-tournament games in August against New Zealand (twice), Argentina, Germany and Tunisia in Japan, Casey believes the Akatsuki Five have made good preparations for the World Cup.
“Playing some really, really tough competition will help them a lot,” the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year said before adding, “even if they lose it’s not a bad thing.”
In 1998, Kohama’s squad went 0-3 against Group B foes Russia (83-58 loss), Puerto Rico (78-57) and eventual champion Yugoslavia (99-54), then topped Senegal (60-50) and fell to Nigeria (70-60) in the 13th-place playoff game. Before this marquee event in Greece, the Japan men hadn’t competed at worlds since 1967.
What stood out about Japan’s 1998 squad?
Casey remembers the team’s foundation was built around star guards Kenichi Sako, one of the current national team’s assistant coaches, and Makoto Hasegawa.
“Well, one thing that I saw in the world games back then was the guard play,” said Casey, who guided the Toronto Raptors from 2011 to 2018 before being hired last summer to lead Detroit. “You had Ken and you had Hasegawa, two dynamic guards, and I think that was the key thing to that team as far as the success of that team, how good they were.”
Comparing the 1998 team to the 2019 squad, Casey said that there are big differences, citing guard play for the former and NBA players Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe as key difference-makers for the latter.
He described Hachimura as “one dynamic player” and commended Watanabe for his versatility and ability to play both forward positions, calling him a player “that can really score and put the ball on the floor.”
He added: “I think the strength of this team is definitely Rui and Watanabe, and the guard play is coming. It’s not there yet. I think that’s the other key growth for this team: How good can the guard play be?”
In summary, Casey said that “it’s going to come down to the guard play. How well can the point guards handle pressure, run the pick-and-roll game, make the right decisions when the game slows down.”
In other words, will Ryusei Shinoyama, Daiki Tanaka and Makoto Hiejima, among others, elevate their game in China?
Japan’s first test will come against Group E foe Turkey on Sunday in Shanghai, and Casey pointed out that teams with disruptive defenses could be a tough challenge for Japan.
He observed that while watching one of the Australia national team’s recent exhibition games on TV that “their full-court pressure is real.”
“(That) full-court pressure,” Casey added, “is something that I think Japan is going to be have to be able to handle and go against.”
When the conversation shifted to the 1998 Japan team’s expectations for worlds, Casey recalled a spoken message that he and Kohama delivered to the players: “The most important thing at that time was we were preaching to the team it’s an honor to represent the country. . .
“Nobody expects anything from us. Let’s go in and be the underdogs, be the attackers, because nobody is going to really respect us, so let’s go in and earn our respect and shock the world.”
There are clear differences between that team and the current squad, which is led by Argentine mentor Julio Lamas, who in his previous coaching gig brought his Argentina League club San Lorenzo de Almagro to Toronto in October 2016 to face the Raptors in a preseason game.
“They are more talented than the talent we had back at that time at the world games, Casey said, “and I was happy to see that. I’m proud of those guys . . . and I said back then it’s just going to be a matter of time before the talent is going to grow and grow and it’s still growing. It’s growing at a snail’s pace, but it’s still growing.
“They are well-coached,” he said of the Akatsuki Five. “Coach Lamas knows exactly what he’s doing, so the expectations with Rui being a top draft pick (No. 9 overall) and Watanabe being already an NBA player is going to change things a little bit.”
Casey gave an example to illustrate his point, noting that some of the team’s set offensive plays put Hachimura in the right position to score.
In 2017, Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino visited Casey in Toronto to seek his advice and ideas about assembling the Akatsuki Five roster. Higashino’s diligence and effort paid off.
“We talked about basketball and what I saw in his team and what I thought would work in international play,” Casey revealed.
Casey said Higashino deserves credit for making smart decisions while assembling the national team roster.
“He’s done his homework,” the former University of Kentucky guard said. “I think he’s done a good job with that.”
Despite his NBA responsibilities, Casey remains a fervent supporter of Japanese basketball.
“Whether I’m in Detroit, Toronto, wherever I am, I feel a kinship with Coach Kohama not with us and Coach (Pete) Newell, who were kind of the starters (of the national team),” said Casey, who befriended Kohama when the latter went to the University of Kentucky in 1979, when Casey was a graduate assistant, to observe how a top-level U.S. college basketball operates. The two became lifelong friends. Casey later coached the JBL’s Sekisui Chemical and Isuzu Motors teams between 1989 and 1994.
He continued: “And again, it’s a new day and I know it was a political situation in the country with the changeover at the top (in the JBA). It was something that probably needed to be done, but still out of respect to Coach Kohama and Coach Newell and the work we did with the national team. The only thing I have is I want to see Japan succeed, whether it’s (the B. League), whether it’s international play or the Olympics, just because of the time and the years that I spent over there investing to try to help Japan basketball grow.
“You can’t move forward unless you know the past, and I know Coach Kohama and his spirit and his desire to see what Crusher is doing now with the Japan national team and the talent level and the interest in basketball (is rising), and if he was alive to see that, he would be proud, because there’s been a new regime and a new chairman of basketball (Yuko Mitsuya) and she’d doing a heck of a job of really building basketball, and I’m just really proud to see what everyone is doing with basketball right now.”