SHANGHAI – As a naturalized Japanese citizen, Nick Fazekas described it “a crazy ride” to be facing his native country on the sport’s premier stage.
That’s what will happen on Thursday night, when Japan meets the United States in a Group E match at the FIBA World Cup.
The Akatsuki Five have already lost their chance to advance to the next round by losing their first two games here.
But for Fazekas, his team’s final first-round contest will be special because he’s facing the Americans.
The Colorado native, who obtained Japanese citizenship last year, said that it’s “cool to compete” against the United States “at this level, compete at this stage.”
“It’s going to be a crazy ride,” Fazekas said after Japan’s practice at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center on Wednesday night. “I never made the senior team (for the U.S.) but played on this team (14) years ago (for the country’s Under-21 squad). And that’s kind of a crazy thing. I was thinking about it today. It’s been cool for me to just compete at this level, compete at this stage, (to) be able to help Japan get here. I feel like I played a big role (to help lead Japan to the World Cup). So I’m proud that I’m here. I wish we could’ve won (the previous games). … But we have another chance at the (Tokyo) Olympics. And the USA game is going to be an experience.”
The 34-year-old former NBA player doesn’t personally know any of the players on the U.S. squad because they are “too young.” But he said that he’s crossed paths with some of its staff in the past.
“Pop (head coach Gregg Popovich), I worked out for the Spurs.” Fazekas recalled. “I actually sat down with Popovich back in the day. He praised me. I had a sort of a long mini-camp with the Spurs.
“I crossed paths with (Atlanta Hawks head coach) Lloyd Pierce in Cleveland. He was an assistant in Cleveland and he gave me a pretty good compliment back in the day.”
He added: “(U.S. assistant and Villanova University head coach) Jay Wright, we kind of crossed paths in a sense. I mean, I know who he is, I think he probably has a good idea of who I am. My name carries a little bit more weight amongst the NCAA than it does more so in the NBA. So anyone that’s sort of college staff, as far as Jay Wright and even Coach K (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski), those guys have good ideas of who I am. But as far as the players, they all too young.”
Fazekas played for the University of Nevada and was named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year for three straight seasons before he was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 2007 NBA Draft.
Thursday game against world No. 1 Team USA will be a daunting task for Japan, which is No. 48 in the FIBA rankings.
Fazekas said that Japan’s latest NBA player Rui Hachimura would “have his hands full” against the Americans. He said that Turkey, which beat Japan 86-67 on Sunday, has as high a level of basketball IQ as the United States, but noted that the American players are more athletic.
“I think (Hachimura)’s going to see a lot of different bodies thrown at him,” Fazekas said. “I think he’s going to see a lot of double teams.
“But at the same time, USA’s kind of proud to play one-on-one, like ‘We don’t need help, we can just play one-on-one.’ Rui might see some one-on-one. He’s going to see some guys that match up against guys like Rui on a nightly basis, kind of like (Turkish player and Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan) Ilyasova.”
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