Basketball

Rui Hachimura inspires Japan's young basketball talent to dream big

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The emergence of Rui Hachimura has absolutely been a catalyst for Japanese basketball and given younger Japanese players the inspiration to dream of one day reaching the NBA.

High school hoopsters Ibu Yamazaki and Bruce Kanno are perhaps the best examples of this among the current generation. In fact, the reason the pair decided to enroll at Meisei High School was to be like Hachimura, who became the first Japanese to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft last summer, when the Washington Wizards took him ninth overall.

Both displayed flashes of their promising talent at the All-Japan National High School Tournament late last month, when they helped guide the Sendai school to the quarterfinal round. Yamazaki has a Japanese mother and Guinean father while Kanno was born a Japanese mother and American father.

Despite both playing in their first season in high school, Yamazaki averaged 21.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while Kanno averaged 11.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in four games at the annual national championships, which is dubbed the Winter Cup. Yamazaki scored 37 points with 11 boards in the third round against Ichiritsu Funabashi.

Yamazaki is 199 cm and Kanno is 196, heights that would traditionally make them inside players in Japan. But they primarily play on the perimeter and have the skillset suited for being outside.

Both can slash to the basket with their silky-smooth moves and dribbling skills and they also possess 3-point-shooting ability (Yamazaki sometimes even takes long 3s from “Steph Curry-esque” range). In other words, it’s already difficult for other high schoolers across the nation to beat them one-on-one.

Meisei head coach Hisao Sato didn’t allow reporters to interview the freshman duo, saying being in the spotlight so early in their high school career would spoil them. But the veteran bench boss admitted they have a bright future with their exceptional potential as basketball players.

“They have to develop their bodies first,” Sato said, referring to the lanky Yamazaki and Kanno, who are from Chiba and Iwate Prefecture, respectively. “They are more like ‘fourth-year junior high school players’ rather than high school players. But they have the potential (to be better players). In order for them to make it happen, we would like to develop their physicality.”

Torsten Loibl, who has coached both at national youth development programs, thinks highly of them as well. The German said developing them as perimeter players would be a great thing for Japan, which is looking for taller players at the guard positions in order to compete on par at the international level. It would also be beneficial toward achieving their goal of reaching the NBA like Hachimura did.

Loibl especially likes Yamazaki’s game, saying he has more potential with more athleticism” and “can play at multiple positions inside and outside.”

“He’s just super athletic,” said Loibl, who now serves as the director coach for the Japan men’s and women’s national 3×3 teams as well.

Loibl added that Yamazaki needs to “just be more emotional and more aggressive” because he sometimes holds back too much.

“But I mean, his limit is somewhere in the sky. He could be the next Hachimura if he works hard, if he gets his homework done,” Loibl said.

Although they have different roles with different playing styles, Yamazaki and Kanno might be better than Hachimura was in his freshman season in terms of their skillset (Hachimura, though, might’ve been more advanced physically and more athletic).

Loibl agreed, stressing that “they are much better than Rui. No doubt.” But he went on to say that does not guarantee they’ll be as successful has Hachimura has been because the pair have “huge way to go.”

Yamazaki and Kanno, who have competed for the Japan under-16 national team, each started playing basketball in elementary school, while Hachimura picked up the game in junior high. So it’s natural they are more skilled at this point. But Loibl pointed out there are many “late starters,” like Hachimura and Loibl’s compatriot and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who have subsequently been successful at the professional level.

“It’s all about learning ability,” Loibl said. “How fast you can learn, how fast you can improve.”

Meanwhile, Tomoya Higashino, the technical director for the Japan Basketball Association, said the fact Japan has now produced players like Hachimura, who played collegiately at Gonzaga, and Yuta Watanabe, a two-way signing for the Memphis Grizzlies who played in college at George Washington, has opened the door for younger Japanese players to look for opportunities to play college ball in the United States.

“Regardless of what school you’re playing at, you’d think about it,” Higashino said of high school players now having thoughts about the possibility of going abroad to play.