Yudai Baba flew over to start his career in the United States last year with an anything-could-happen mentality.
Yet high expectations for his first G League season soon gave way to the realization that the Toyama native would have a lot to learn.
“I was in a completely new environment, so I went over there trying to prepare myself as much as I could,” Baba, who played for the Texas Legends in the 2019-20 season, told The Japan Times in a recent online interview. “But as I participated in the training camp of the (Dallas) Mavericks and played in a few preseason games, I thought I’d be given playing minutes in the G League.”
Things did not go as smoothly as he anticipated, however. Including his debut in a 105-95 road loss against fellow Japanese Yuta Watanabe and the Memphis Hustle, Baba played only 11.4 minutes per game in eight games in November, and 16.6 in 11 games in December.
Baba, who returned to Japan after the G League announced it would shut down the rest of the season in mid-March, admitted that he was “sulky” sitting on the bench but bounced back with a nothing-is-granted spirit.
“I tried to be ready to play whenever my name was called as much as possible,” said the 196-cm guard/forward, who played for the B. League powerhouse Alvark Tokyo in the previous two seasons. “You never know when someone gets hurt or someone lacks focus and plays poorly and you get your turn. You never know when you get to play on the court. And I was trying to get myself ready for any possible situation.”
Baba, who from his B. League days has been known for his positive mindset, has worked on maintaining that attitude. The 24-year-old said that while he still needs to improve his English language skills, he's attempted to actively communicate with his Legends teammates and staff.
“Using body language, like I was the first to jump off the bench to high-five with my teammates when timeouts were called. I tried to make sure I’d constantly do things like that,” said Baba, who averaged 6.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists playing in 41 games (five starts) for the Legends this season. “And I think it paid off for me in terms of gaining more trust from the team.”
Those efforts visibly worked in favor of Baba. He improved his average playing time to 23.6 minutes in January and 28.7 in February as the Legends went on to finish fifth in the Western Conference with a 24-19 record.
Baba proved he deserved to be on the floor with his skills, too. One of the most notable improvements he made over the course of the season was his 3-point shooting, which is becoming a must-have ability to play at the game's highest levels, including the NBA.
Baba started off shooting 20 and 37.5 percent from behind the arc in November and December, respectively. But he improved his numbers to 45.7 in January and 44.4 in February. He also attempted more shots as he spent more time on the court.
Baba's former coaches in Japan insisted that he'd always had the touch to hit long shots, a skill perhaps overshadowed by his own dynamic athleticism.
“Watching how Yudai played for the Legends this year, he made a lot of improvements. And among the areas he improved, his 3-point shooting stood out," said Takuma Ito, a former Alvark head coach and Legends assistant coach for the last two years.
Following Baba's tryout for Dallas in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last summer, Ito told Takahiro Mori, a skill coach for the Alvark, to work on Baba’s 3-point shooting in Japan's training camps leading into the FIBA World Cup.
Using an iPad app, Mori worked with Baba to study his motions and mechanics, identifying and eliminating an extra move between catching a pass and shooting.
“He wasn’t respected for his 3s in Japan,” said Mori, who was a part of the Akatsuki Five staff for the World Cup. “No matter how slow he took his shots, it didn’t matter as long as he nailed them.”
According to Mori, Baba’s release speed was originally over 1 seconds but they successfully cut it by about half to 0.5 or 0.6 seconds — about 0.1 to 0.2 seconds behind Steph Curry’s time.
Baba stressed that as much as he progressed technically, competing with a more aggressive mentality was a key behind the improvement of his 3-point shooting.
"Americans are like, 'I’ll make the shot when I have the ball in my hands,'" said Baba, whose final game of the season was on March 8 against the Agua Caliente Clippers. “While I'm thinking of passing, they don’t hesitate to take shots when they are open.
“So I started having the mentality of not overcomplicating things and just shooting the ball, and it eventually resulted in better numbers.”
Baba’s defensive skills have tended to be overlooked because of his flashy offensive game, but he thinks he's also made progress in that area. The 2018-19 season B. League Final MVP said that his reactions are becoming fast enough to guard better and stronger athletes in the U.S.
“I reacted a little faster (than when I was in Japan) and it made me possible to keep up with their speed,” said Baba, who had 1 steal per game.
Reflecting on his first year in the G League, Baba gave himself a passing grade on his adjustment to the American game. But that's not his ultimate goal — the University of Tsukuba alum is looking to become the first Japanese player to reach the NBA via the B. League.
Now, Ito and others say Baba might have a shot.
“NBA teams like that Baba is a high-energy player who plays two ways,” said one NBA insider on condition of anonymity. “He is an elite defender who can also shoot. He has been described as a young, right-handed Manu Ginobili-type player.”
For Baba, those assessments won't mean much until he steps onto an NBA court.
“When you become an NBA player, then you are finally in the position to get credit,” said Baba, who hopes to reach a position similar to that of Alex Caruso, who signed a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Lakers before inking a two-year deal with the same team last summer.
Baba, who almost single-handedly shined in a 98-45 loss to Team USA by scoring 18 points at the World Cup, is eager to don the Akatsuki Five jersey to represent his country at the Tokyo Olympics — hopefully as an NBA player.
While he would have liked to do so this summer, he's taking the postponement of the Summer Games positively because it gives Japan, which went 0-5 in China, a time to develop.
“That’s what I’m aiming at,” Baba said of competing for Japan at the Olympics as an NBA player. “Experience will only make you better, and I’d definitely like to make that challenge.”
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