With just weeks remaining until the basketball competition tips off at the Tokyo Games, the battle to make Japan’s 12-man roster will begin in earnest from Wednesday during the final window of FIBA Asian Cup qualifying.
The Akatsuki Five will play three games from June 16 to 19 at Angeles City Foundation Gym in Pampanga, the Philippines. The team will begin with a contest against China. Japan will also face Taiwan and play an additional game against China.
Due to postponements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan has only completed one qualifier — a 96-57 win over Taiwan in February 2020.
“We’ve had to deal with extraordinary situations — we haven’t been able to play in the last 16 months,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas told reporters during an online news conference on Friday. “That said, we have three objectives: One is to make sure we’ll get a ticket to the Asian Cup finals. Another is to get the lost time that we did not have together to compete, so we can show a better version of ourselves than we did in February of last year.
“And lastly, we hope to be able to develop our offensive and defensive systems that we’ve tried to install after the World Cup (in 2019).”
The Argentine bench boss is taking 17 players to the qualifiers and plans to cut two after the tournament.
The Asia Cup will be played in Jakarta from August 16 to 28.
NBA stars Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards, Yuta Watanabe of the Toronto Raptors, and Yudai Baba, who plays for the Melbourne United in Australia’s National Basketball League, are expected to join the provisional squad, although the timing of their arrivals is uncertain.
Japan has been grouped with reigning world champion Spain, Argentina and a country still to be decided through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the preliminary round of the Summer Games.
Shooting guard Daiki Tanaka is not taking anything for granted in his quest to make the Olympic squad. At the same time, the 29-year-old has been in the picture for Lamas for a long time and is confident in his ability to make the cut.
“Coach Lamas has had a long-term view of building his team with the World Cup and Olympics in mind,” Tanaka said. “And I’ve been on the national team and know what the coach expects me to do, and we’ve established trust in each other.
“You can’t assume anything until you officially get chosen and need to keep competing with your teammates. But I’m thinking of playing at the Olympics and how I’ll perform there. So I’m confident that I’ll win the battles inside the team and compete at the Olympics.”
One of the most intriguing battles will be between Ryan Rossiter and Gavin Edwards for the lone naturalized player slot.
Rossiter made his national team debut against Taiwan last February, while Edwards has not yet played for Japan. The two will likely be tested in the Philippines.
Yuki Togashi, Edwards’ teammate with the Chiba Jets Funabashi, had nothing but praise for the former UConn player’s abilities.
“Both have worked so hard for Japan and I wish they could both play at the Olympics,” Togashi said. “I’ve played with Gavin the last four years and certainly want to go to the Olympics with him. He’s mentally tough, he’s got legs to be able to run and he’s good at shooting. I think he’ll fit in the national team by performing with what he’s shown us at Chiba.”
On a team with smaller players compared with other elite countries, Edwards understands he’ll be called upon to contribute with his size.
“I just have to bring an anchoring inside presence and just have to go up against some of the best bigs in the world and just do my best,” the 206-centimeter forward/center said. “Especially in our group, they’re pretty much all NBA guys. So it’s playing against NBA-level talent night in and night out. They have multiple guys at that position, so it will definitely be challenging but, like I said, I’m looking forward to raising my level as well and just competing against those guys.”
Rossiter is known for his intense leadership within the B. League’s Utsunomiya Brex. The 31-year-old considers that one of his greatest strengths and will be looking to serve as the floor general for the national team.
“You have to set the tone physically in what you’re doing on the court yourself,” the 206-cm forward/center said, when asked how he’d lead Japan. “I think, as a leader, you can’t ask anyone or tell someone to do something that you’re not doing yourself. So I think it starts with me bringing energy and playing every possession and trying to rotate the right way on defense and playing with effort.”
Japan will play three exhibitions against Iran in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, and Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, from June 23 to 27.
The Akatsuki Five will also take on Hungary, Belgium and Finland in exhibitions at Okinawa Arena July 7 to 11 before relocating to Saitama’s Saiden Chemical Arena for games against an unconfirmed opponent on July 16 and France on July 18.
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