Basketball

Japan eager to show improvement on hardwood

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Most of the players on Japan’s roster for the current FIBA World Cup didn’t make the trip to Belgrade three years ago for the Olympic Qualification Tournament ahead of the 2016 Rio Games.

Despite not being part of that team, which looked helpless in an 88-48 loss to Latvia and an 87-71 defeat against the Czech Republic, the members of the current Japan squad wanted to show the country had improved.

Japan met the Czechs again on Tuesday night in a Group E clash at the ongoing FIBA World Cup. One of the goals for the Asians in the contest was to show the world the strides they’ve taken in the past three years.

What ended up on display, however, was the reality that Japan still has a long way to go in order to join the world’s elite. Japan is currently No. 48 in the FIBA rankings, making the nation one of the underdogs at the World Cup.

Memphis Grizzlies player Yuta Watanabe was on the Japan team that lost to the Czechs at the qualification event in 2016. After losing to them again on Tuesday in an 89-76 defeat at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, Watanabe said Japan played better this time around but was frustrated to have come up with the same result.

“The players here are different from (three years ago) for both teams,” said Watanabe, who scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds.

“I have a feeling we’ve gotten closer to the rest of the world since that time. But we were on the losing side again. Czech is certainly a great team and is on a higher level than we are. But they are not an opponent we could never beat. So I’m disappointed (in the result).”

Japan, which is already assured of a last-place finish in Group E, will face the United States in its final group stage contest on Thursday night.

Shooting guard Makoto Hiejima, another player who competed in Serbia, echoed Watanabe’s sentiment.

“I have the impression that we gave the Czechs more problems and we were able to compete better against them than the last time,” said the 29-year-old, who played for the New Orleans Pelicans’ squad in July’s NBA Summer League.

“But we had to beat them. We needed to play with better quality and I feel like we could’ve done better.”

Twin brothers Joji and Kosuke Takeuchi are Japan’s other holdovers from the 2016 Olympic qualification tourney.

Tomas Satoransky, an NBA veteran who played for the Czechs against Japan in both 2016 and 2019, admitted the Japanese had made “a huge improvement.”

“We have different players obviously, (but) they’ve made a lot of improvement individually,” the 27-year-old point guard said after Tuesday’s game. “They have a bright future. They have the Olympics in Tokyo. I think Japanese fans should be looking forward to that.”

Forward Blake Schilb, who was one of the heroes for the Czechs on Tuesday with six 3-pointers in a 22-point effort, also played against Japan in the 2016 game. The 35-year-old said Japan had “definitely improved” since their last contest and was “a lot tougher.”

When asked what Japan needs to do going forward to be more competitive, Schilb said: “In order for them to perhaps get better, they’re going to have to take another step again and just improve even more. I can see that happening for them.”

Czech head coach Ronen Ginzburg said Japan already has quality players and if it adds “two, three (more),” it can make further strides at global tourneys like the World Cup and Olympics.

“I believe that for sure they will need another two, three players,” Ginzburg said. “Because they have like seven, eight good players. They need another two, three players who can play at a high level. Then, they will be a great team.

“They have (Rui) Hachimura, who is a superstar. And 12 (Watanabe) and 24 (Daiki Tanaka). They need two players, and I think they’ll be great.”