Basketball

Japan's shortcomings laid bare at FIBA World Cup

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

High hopes turned into devastation — and misery.

With an 80-65 loss to Montenegro on Monday, the Japan men’s basketball team concluded its campaign at the 2019 FIBA World Cup with a disastrous 0-5 record, the worst-ever outcome for the team in the sport’s extravaganza.

Considering the squad competed in a tough first-round pool in Shanghai along with 2010 silver medalist Turkey, the Czech Republic and the world No. 1 United States, qualifying through the preliminary stage was a daunting task.

However, Japan entered this World Cup with arguably its strongest-ever squad, featuring Washington Wizards first-round pick Rui Hachimura, Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing Yuta Watanabe and naturalized former NBA player Nick Fazekas, as well as some youngsters who have developed while competing in the domestic B. League.

But the team clearly faced a stark reality in China and the competition was at a completely different level than it was during Asian qualifiers, where the Akatsuki Five were dominant toward the end, winning their final eight games to earn a berth to the global event.

But Japan’s second-round aspirations were smashed into pieces.

“We earned the spot at the World Cup on our own and there’s been other positive things in Japanese basketball,” guard Daiki Tanaka said. “A lot of people and the media have paid attention to us, and coming over here we thought we could compete at the World Cup. But after everything’s said and done, this result is the reality for us.”

Watanabe, one of Japan’s co-captains, confessed that it was the first time in his career he wasn’t able to overcome pressure.

“I put pressure on my own shoulders that we had to qualify through the first round,” Watanabe said after the Montenegro game. “But after we lost in the Czech game (which we had to win), I started losing myself and became unable to perform to my best.”

Japan’s best, and most realistic, scenario for reaching the second round was to post wins against Turkey and the Czech Republic before meeting Team USA in its third pool game. But after a sloppy, sluggish performance against Turkey, Japan seemed to carry an even heavier burden in the rest of its games.

As a result, Japan averaged only 66.8 points per game, which ranked 30th in the tournament through Tuesday, compared to the 82.3 it boasted in Asian qualifying.

Japan head coach Julio Lamas employed a slow-it-down pace, which was designed to give his opponents fewer offensive possessions and fewer points. The Argentine said Japan would have a hard time if it allowed more than 80 points in World Cup games. Japan, however, didn’t meet this objective, yielding 92.8 points per game in China. The team allowed 70.3 points per game in the Asian preliminaries.

It should be noted that Hachimura and point guard/co-captain Ryusei Shinoyama did not play in Japan’s final two games due to injuries.

Hachimura, 21, was possibly not in top condition after coming down with a fever ahead of the opening game against Turkey.

In short, Japan failed to compete on par with the world’s top teams at the World Cup.

“It was tough. In terms of one-on-ones, defense and all that, the level of play was way above (the level) in Asia,” said Yudai Baba, who played for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Summer League in July. “The decision-making speed of the players (of other countries) was something that stuck in my head as well.”

When asked what aspects of the game Japan needs to work on the most, he responded by saying: “To be honest, in all areas. I don’t think there was a single area that we were winning.”

Lamas noted Japan, which entered the World Cup ranked No. 48 in the world, is still on the lower tier in the global pecking order and doesn’t have a lot of international experience. He added that it was difficult for Japanese players to compete on even footing against the world’s elite players.

“They have a lot of players that are playing in the NBA and Europe,” said Lamas, who led Argentina to a fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics. “It’s tough for you to play against players that are in that sort of environment. We have to develop in that area (improving the B. League), too.”

Lamas continued: “We could not reach a win with the status quo. This is the reality. But that’s why we have to prepare ourselves and start our development as soon as possible so that we will have a better result at the (Tokyo) Olympics.”

Most would probably agree that Japan gained very little by dropping all five of its World Cup games. But if there is a positive to be found, it’s that the players realize they have to work a lot harder to develop from their daily play in their respective leagues.

That said, the B. League, which provides the majority of the players for the national team, is also coming under scrutiny. Some critics say it’s not as competitive as some of the world’s top leagues in Europe.

“We have to think about how we should play in the B. League with the national team in mind,” guard Makoto Hiejima said. “There’s things overseas that Japan doesn’t have. That’s an external issue.”

But the clock is ticking. There are fewer than 11 months left for Japan to find ways to improve before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Lamas has stressed that the national team needs experience, which can only be gained by competing in international events.

“It’s positive we have gone through an experience like this one year before 2020,” Baba said. “We will only focus on getting ready for next year. We’ve hit the bottom and only have ways upward. I want to think of things at the global level.”