Basketball / B. League

Nick Fazekas not ready to cede national team spot to naturalized Brex star Ryan Rossiter

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

A year ago, Japanese fans called Nick Fazekas a “savior” for completely changing the fortunes of Japan’s men’s basketball team during Asian qualifying for the FIBA World Cup. That success was something he took pride in being a big part of.

But now, some have already started talking about a new guy ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

Fazekas, who has been a key figure in the Akatsuki Five since obtaining Japanese citizenship, feels that the treatment is “a little bit unfair.”

His reaction came after Utsunomiya Brex star Ryan Rossiter announced on Friday that his own application to naturalize had been approved by the Japanese government. The 30-year-old has expressed that he would be grateful to play for Japan if chosen.

Rossiter, a native of Staten Island, New York, revealed his journey toward Japanese citizenship several weeks ago. Fans quickly responded positively, raising the possibility of Rossiter replacing Fazekas at the Olympics.

But Fazekas, a two-time Most Valuable Player in Japan’s top pro circuit, including the B. League’s inaugural season in 2016-17, appears uncomfortable with having potentially lost the limelight so quickly.

“I feel like I played a pretty big part in getting to the World Cup (in China) and qualifying for the Olympics,” Fazekas said after his Kawasaki Brave Thunders’ 90-87 win over the Ryukyu Golden Kings at Todoroki Arena on Saturday. “So I feel like it’s unfair for me not to play in (the Olympics) and not sort of see it through since that was sort of my work that I did.

“I’m not really worried about Rossiter at this point. I don’t feel like Rossiter is better than me, I don’t feel like he’s the better option for the national team. So I’m not too worried about it.”

Per FIBA regulations, a national team can register only one player who has naturalized after turning 16 years old. Alongside Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe, the 210-cm forward/center Fazekas averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds during the Asian qualifying campaign and helped Japan, which began with an 0-4 record, win its last eight contests to earn spots at the World Cup and Olympics.

The 34-year-old, who has played with a chronic left leg injury, was not as effective at the World Cup, in which Japan went 0-5 playing against some of the world’s elites including the United States and Turkey, recording 14.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

“We didn’t have the best showing in the World Cup. Rui didn’t play the last two games (due to discomfort in his knees),” Fazekas said. “But before the World Cup, we were able to win some games. And the Olympics (would be) sort of the second chance for us.”

Although Fazekas and Rossiter have different playing styles, they have put up equally impressive numbers in the current B. League season. As of Saturday, Fazekas had averaged 21.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 45.2 3-point shooting percentage per game, while Rossiter had posted 19.5 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2 steals.

In their college days, Fazekas was a three-time Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year competing for the University of Nevada, while Rossiter captured the same accolade of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference donning the jersey of Siena College in the 2010-11 season.

But as a veteran with NBA experience, Fazekas believes that he is “a better player” than Rossiter, a 206-cm forward/center, and warned that the sole naturalized player spot would be earned through “a competition.”

“It would be unfair for me, not playing in the Olympics,” Fazekas said. “But again, too, just because Rossiter gets a passport, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s the guy that’s going to play, right? You want to have a competition. If we can have a competition, I’m fine having a competition.

“To me, I still feel like I’m a better player than him.”

Fazekas landed in Japan in 2012 and Rossiter, 30, came in 2013. Both are playing for their original Japanese clubs.

Rossiter may not be the last player to join the national team picture, with players as Gavin Edwards of the Chiba Jets Funabashi and Justin Burrell of the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins reportedly considering naturalization.