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When it comes to team sports, one of Japan’s biggest strengths is the cohesiveness its squads usually display.

Improvement on an individual level, however, is considered an essential element for athletes who hope to succeed on the highest levels of sports, whether it’s in a professional league or the Olympics.

The idea of starting that development from a young age is one that has been rapidly spreading around the B. League over the last several years.

The men’s pro basketball circuit has actually made it mandatory for its clubs to operate an under-15 program. Each team will soon also be required to establish a U-18 squad.

Some of the B. League U-15 squads are providing players with experiences they might not get at their school programs, or bukatsu, which are often criticized for focusing too much on winning and collectivism over individual development.

Tomoya Suehiro has been the head coach of the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins U-15 team since 2018 and before that was part of the Japan Basketball Association’s technical staff.

During his JBA days, Suehiro worked with different teams in the national system, including the men’s top-flight squad and U-19 team. So he’s had a chance get a close look at the country’s elite players, including Rui Hachimura.

In his role for Nagoya, his focus shifted from Xs and Os and data analysis to working to develop his players’ individual skills.

“What I can do is to try to develop my players into ones who can compete at the international level,” Suehiro said during the B. League’s U-15 tournament, which wrapped on Tuesday in Tokyo. “That’s been my focus. In order for Japan national teams to beat overseas teams that are bigger, you have to play at a faster pace, play smart and be two dimensional. That’s what I’ve been pursuing. And hopefully, we’ll have players who understand what we’re doing.

Suehiro sometimes thinks back to the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Egypt in 2017. While Japan, with Hachimura as its top player, finished 10th out of 16 teams, Suehiro feels the squad gave its opponents a challenge in every game apart from a 100-75 loss to eventual gold medalist Canada.

“The Japanese team played good defense and worked so hard,” Suehiro said. “We lost to Italy, which ended up the runner-up, just by two (57-55). But Canada was a team that made us feel like we wouldn’t be able to win no matter how many times we played.

“We did all the things were supposed to do defensively as a unit, but they still surpassed us. It came down to individual skill. I can’t forget the impact of the Canada game."

Diamond Dolphins guard Kanata Nagasato, who played for the U-15 team for three years, made an hour-plus commute from his home in Minokamo, Gifu Prefecture, to the team’s base in Nagoya “four, five times a week,” with his parents taking turns driving him.

Nagasato, for whom the U-15 event was his final opportunity to compete for the team as he’ll begin high school this month, feels like joining a pro club’s youth squad paid off for him.

“Our team’s concept has been the same as it is for the top-flight team, which is to keep running and play at a fast tempo,” said Nagasato, who was named tournament MVP. “I think that I was able to learn skills that are used for the top team and strategies that you can’t experience at school teams.”

Perhaps the major common threads among the B. League U-15 squads is that the coaches don’t dictate everything.

Earthfriends Tokyo Z forward Shawn Marion Williams is seen as potentially being the “next Hachimura.” Earthfriends coach Teiken Iwai, though, didn’t limit the 196-cm Williams to playing inside but let him show off his versatility all over the floor.

Iwai admitted Williams made errors during games, but the team has attempted to be patient and monitor his development.

“It’s the same for other players as well,” Iwai said. “But you can’t let your players lose the will to play boldly. You have to provide an environment where they can continue to be bold. I think that’s very important.

Suehiro said playing to win is still important for players at this age, because they try different things in pursuit of victories.

“But one thing I try not to do is tell them what not to do, because that limited the players’ development,” he continued. “They can try this and try that and to attempt to beat their opponents. Even when they make mistakes, we just encourage them by saying ‘nice try.’ You can review the plays and given them feedback later."

While the JBA has allowed players to play for both a U-15 squad and their school, that will be prohibited beginning this month and players will have to choose one or the other.

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