Yuto Kawashima: Following the footsteps of role model Mr. Hachimura
DOHA (Qatar) - For most players, playing in the FIBA U16 Asian Championship would mean making their first appearance in a national team jersey. There aren't that many opportunities for a player aged 16 or younger.
Unless, of course, you are so exceptional of a talent that you are called up to play in a higher age group.
Meet Yuto Kawashima.
"I hope I can get one more step closer to Mr. Hachimura who is my goal, my role model."
The 2.00M (6'7") power forward was one of the best players in the U16 Asian Championship 2022, starring as the leader of the young Akasuki Five during this run and winning the MVP award. If he looked like he carries himself differently on the court compared to his teammates as if this isn't his first time representing Japan, it is because it isn't.
"This is the second time to play for Japan. I participated in U19 World Cup last year," said Kawashima.
Even though he was around 3 years younger than the competition at the U19 World Cup 2021 in Riga, Kawashima was a part of team and getting his chance to represent the country. The skilled forward with a wide smile saw limited playing time as the youngest player on the roster, logging 10.2 minutes per game while putting up 2.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per contest.
Those who followed Japan basketball knew that Kawashima was capable of much more, especially when he would be able to go up against players in the same age group. They'd seen him star for Ohori High School over the past year - where he built his case to be considered as one of the best youngsters in Japan - and were just waiting to see when Kawashima's opportunity would come next.
For Kawashima, he knew that there was a lot to work on and room for improvement, which he hoped to put on display the next time he put on the national team jersey.
"I should be kind of a leader in this generation [of players]," Kawashima said, comparing where he is now to where he was at the U19 World Cup.
"I can score and get rebounds in the game, so I think that I am growing compared to [back the at] that moment. There are a lot of stuff which I should develop, so I will work on it."
That opportunity to show his improvement has been here in Doha, Qatar at the U16 Asian Championship. This campaign has been a historic run for both Japan and Kawashima himself as an individual.
For Japan, this was the first time that the team went all the way to the Final. They've had some success in the past editions of the event, finishing at third place twice, but this is the first time they've finished among the top two teams.
Moreover, Japan have also qualified for the U17 World Cup 2022.
"This will be the second time [reaching the U17 World Cup] since 2014 with Mr. Hachimura," Kawashima said. "He took an opportunity to play in the USA through that tournament. So when I go to the U17 World Cup, I want to play better, to make myself known to lots of people because I will go and play abroad in the near future."
"And I hope that we would play against USA."
The mention of Hachimura might seem like a small side note, but it might mean a bit more for Kawashima who has grown up idolizing the senior national team superstar and has been trying to follow his footsteps. Succeeding as a team at the U16 Asian Championship is the first step and putting up a historic individual performance at the competition is a nice touch, too.
Here were Hachimura's stats at the U16 Asian Championship 2013:
22.8 points per game
12.6 rebounds per game
51.9 percent field goal shooting
Here are Kawashima's stats at the U16 Asian Championship 2022:
26.6 points per game (led competition)
11.2 rebounds per game (3rd in competition)
52.7 percent field goal shooting
It's not a perfect carbon copy and the two players are different in the way they play, but it's solid indicator of how big of a star these two were in the competition. For Kawashima, who has his eyes fixed on a certain goal in his future, matching up with these stats is a great sign.
"Since I was a junior high school student, my dream is going to the NBA. I have watched how Mr. Hachimura reached the NBA and I always spend my days to make this happen again. If I got similar stats, it should be a great pleasure."
Not only does Kawashima match up against one of the greatest to play at this level in Japan, he's also right up there among the best ever to play in the U16 Asian Championship from any national team.
His 38 points against New Zealand in the Semi-Finals is among the five highest scoring performances in the U16 Asian Championship - edging Hachimura's 35 points for most ever by a player from Japan.
Additionally, after scoring 23 points in the Final, Kawashima now has the highest scoring average ever among all players to have played in the U16 Asian Championship.
"It's been a great thing as a team [to qualify for the U17 World Cup]," said Kawashima. "Individually, I hope I can get one more step closer to Mr. Hachimura who is my goal, my role model."
Yuto Kawashima doesn't keep his future ambitions a secret.
"My next step should be going abroad. I'm focused on this step now," Kawashima said.
The youngster has been reciting these goals ever since 2021 when he had just joined Ohori High School.
This shouldn't be a surprise, coming from a player who carries himself with confidence like Kawashima. You can always feel the confidence oozing from him when he is on the court, a result of a mentality passed on from his father.
That's why you see Kawashima take every opportunity he can to throw down a dunk, even if he misses an attempt for two.
"I decided to aim for a dunk every time I could," Kawakshi said, as per Basketball-Zine (translated).
"My dad tells me to play with confidence. If you can play with confidence, the game will look better and better. In such a situation, I always try to be aggressive when I can."
That is the kind of confidence that has pushed a youngster like Kawashima to stay focused on his goals, inspired by stars he can relate with like Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe.
"Unfortunately, I have never met them before, but they inspire me a lot, of course," said Kawashima. "I am as tall as Mr. Watanabe, so his play in the NBA gives me kind of confidence that I might be able play there as well. I always try my best to reach this goal."
In an ideal situation, Kawashima continues to develop into a superstar to form one of Asia's best frontcount combination with Hachimura and Watanabe. What would that look like?
"If I develop my shooting skills in the paint and have more variations of shots, I will be able to score more. Both Mr. Hachimura and Mr. Watanabe can score inside and outside the paint. There are so many big players, so I should have good shots," imagined the ambitious Kawashima.
Into the Future
All of this should excite Japan basketball fans, who have had a good stretch over the recent years. They've already seen two superstars emerge in Hachimura and Watanabe, with other stars like Yudai Baba and Yuki Togashi providing buzz every now and then as well. To have another prospect like Kawashima (in addition to the many more talents that have already been featured) lined up means that there continues to be a positive outlook for the future of Japan basketball.
Reaching the U16 Asian Championship 2022 Final and qualifying for the U17 World Cup is just adding fuel to the fire that is the enthusiasm of Japan basketball fans.
"The performance in this competition is a good mood for Japan basketball. In the past, there were some tough times for Japan in Asian competitions." Said the youngster. "But we could break that record now. It proves our development in the Japan basketball environment."
It seems that the future of Japan basketball is in good hands.
"I'm sure Japan basketball will be better. Hopefully, I wish to be a part of this development as well."
All things considered from the historic performance that we've seen in Doha, it would be tough to leave Yuto Kawashima out of the picture.