Basketball

Japan maintains positive vibe before FIBA World Cup opener against Turkey

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The challenge that awaits the Japan men’s national team is certainly big. But the players are filled with positive energy and are ready for it.

One day before Japan competes in its first 2019 FIBA World Cup game, the squad wrapped up its final practice at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, the venue for the Group E games in the first round, on Saturday night.

The Akatsuki Five face Turkey, the silver medalist at the 2010 edition of the event, which was then called the FIBA World Championship, in their first game on Sunday. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. JST.

“I’m excited,” forward Rui Hachimura said after practice. “It’s the first global stage for me to play in a while. This is indeed my first global tourney (in the senior category). Because we play in China, we expect a lot of (Japanese) fans coming over from Japan to watch us play and I’m thrilled to play with these teammates.”

The 21-year-old, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards in June’s NBA Draft, played at the world championships in the Under-17 and U-19 categories.

Asked if he has any jitters entering the team’s tournament opener, Hachimura responded by saying, “This is a global tournament and everyone wants to compete here. But I have the pleasure to be here (rather than being nervous).”

Yuta Watanabe, another star player for Japan, insisted that he and his teammates “can’t wait” for the upcoming battles.

“We worked so hard for this World Cup,” said Watanabe, who along with Ryusei Shinoyama were named co-captains by head coach Julio Lamas for the tournament. “So we are ready to compete. We are going to have fun.”

The 24-year-old versatile forward, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies as a two-way signing, said that the majority of the team is thrilled to be taking the hardwood at the sport’s premier stage.

“We’ve been talking (about competing at the World Cup) except for Joji and Kosuke,” Watanabe said, referring to the veteran twin Takeuchi brothers, both of whom played at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan. “The rest of us are playing in this World Cup for the first time. We are all excited. All the other three teams are really good. It seems like everyone is so excited and everyone is enjoying this moment.

“We can’t wait for the World Cup starting tomorrow.”

Lamas said that squaring off against Turkey will be “very demanding.” With a smile, he then added: “It’s time to play.”

Japan meets the Czech Republic two days after the Turkey game. On Thursday, the Akatsuki Five face the world No. 1 United States.

Turkey, No. 17 in the FIBA rankings, enters its game against 48th-ranked Japan as the clear favorite, but pregame predictions and speculation don’t bother the Europeans.

“We really respect Japan as a team. They have a good team. They have good players,” Turkey star forward Cedi Osman said. “I believe we work really hard during this process, 45 days (of preparation ahead of the World Cup) and we are going to go out there and give our best.”

Osman added that the first game is always “one of the toughest ones” for anyone.

“But we are ready and we can’t wait to start,” the Cleveland Cavaliers player stated.

Turkey point guard Scott Wilbekin, an American-born player who became a naturalized Turkish citizen last year, said that he does not buy into the notion that his team will cruise past the East Asians.

“Japan is an underdog?” asked Wilbekin, a former University of Florida standout who was named the Southeastern Conference’s 2014 Player of the Year. “I don’t know these things. We don’t look at it like that because we watched them on film and they are very dangerous.

“They beat some good teams in the exhibition tournament. And they are a dangerous team. They have a lot of guys who can shoot well and obviously Hachimura and Watanabe can score a lot in any games. They play dangerous and we don’t look at them as an underdog. We look at them as a tough opponent. So we have to come aggressive and come focused.”

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