Yudai Baba is Southern Hemisphere-bound, but he hasn’t abandoned his North American aspirations.
One day after the announcement that he had signed with the Melbourne United of Australia’s National Basketball League, Baba expressed excitement Monday about his new challenge playing in another foreign league this upcoming season.
“I’m happy to have signed with Melbourne United,” Baba said in English before switching to Japanese for the remainder of a news conference at the Japan Basketball Association office. “I’m excited to be part of this team and looking forward to playing in Australia.”
The 24-year-old guard is the second-ever Japanese to sign with an NBL team, following Makoto Hiejima, who played for the Brisbane Bullets in 2018-19.
Baba, who played for the Texas Legends in the G League, the NBA’s minor league circuit, during the 2019-20 season, said uncertainty over whether that league would take place this fall, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, led to his decision to play in the NBL. He added that he wanted to play in an English-speaking country with his ultimate goal being to compete in North America — this time in the NBA.
“The G League season was canceled and it’s uncertain when it will resume because of the situation (surrounding the virus),” Baba said. “I didn’t want to lose my feel for the game and wanted to play somewhere.”
The 196-cm player hinted that there were offers from other NBL teams.
Asked about the possibility of leaving the team during the season were he to get an offer from an NBA club, Baba was noncommittal and said only that he wants to keep his focus on Melbourne.
“We don’t know what will happen to the season in the United States, so I would like to consider (such a possibility) when the season starts over there,” the Toyama native said. “(But) I would like to take the best possible route for me to become an NBA player. The NBL is a high-level basketball league and I’m sure it’ll be a benefit to me. We don’t know how the entire world will wind up, but no matter where I am, I would like to do my best with 120-percent focus. So I can’t really talk about my future.”
While he said players in the G League are desperate to be promoted to the NBA, Baba’s initial impression is that the NBL is “more team-oriented.”
“I think that the NBL is better than the G League in terms of playing as a team as well as physicality,” said Baba, who averaged 6.3 points and 2.5 rebounds, while also developing his 3-point shooting (41.1 percent) and defensive skills, for the Legends last season. “Individually, American players stand out, but when you look at how they play as a team in the NBL, I think the NBL is at a way higher level. So I think it’s going to give me another challenge.”
The NBL usually kicks off in October, but will reportedly begin the 2020-21 season in December due to the pandemic’s continuing impact.
Baba, a former member of B. League’s Alvark Tokyo, has been signed as a “Special Restricted Player,” allowing him to be classified as a local player while also being exempt from the salary cap. Players from FIBA’s Asia and Oceania regions are eligible for the designation.
“Baba is going to bring something different to our club that we haven’t seen before,” United head coach Dean Vickerman said in a statement. “He’s a unique talent, but we’re really encouraged by what we’ve seen. I think he’ll really have an impact in our league.”