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19 February, 2024
25 February, 2025
30 Keisei Tominaga (JPN)
10/01/2024
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''Japanese Curry'' Keisei Tominaga draws high praise for work ethic, drive, and passion

BEIRUT (Lebanon) - While basketball is rapidly rising in Japan, playing basketball in the USA at the collegiate level is not the most common route yet.

Of course, in recent years, there was Yuta Watanabe and then there was Rui Hachimura, both of whom were successful during their time playing in NCAA Division 1. This is what inspired the next generation of young Japanese ballers to test their talents abroad.

Ballers like Keisei Tominaga.

"He is a larger-than-life figure over there. They look up to him in a huge way. Anytime I see a social media post about Keisei, it just blows up and he's so humble through it all."

- Fred Hoiberg

 

As documented in a part of a documentary produced by the Nebraska Huskers, where Tominaga currently plays, the sharpshooter "always had a ball in his hands" and "always wanted to play in America.".

 

Keisei mentioned that he had started getting recognition from college coaches when he was playing for Japan's U18 national team. With averages of 17.5 points per game (3.2 three-pointers made on 42.2 percent) at the FIBA U16 Asian Championship 2017 and 19.3 points per game (3.3 three-pointers made on 34.3 percent) at the FIBA U18 Asian Championship 2018, Tominaga was certainly going to draw some interest.

It was that performance that piqued the attention of Luca Virgilio, Director of Men’s Basketball Strategies and Business Operations at the University of Nebraska.

"I first heard Keisei's name in 2018," Virgilio recalled in the documentary. "I get a phone call from a friend, and he tells me, 'Listen, I got a kid for you'. One morning, I woke up, and I was like, 'You know what? I'm just going to watch some films and see what this kid is about'.

"I was just fascinated. The stuff that he was doing was just so unique."

But Virgilio had to wait, as Tominaga had to clear the hurdles on the academic end to be able to play at the D1 level. So Nebraska waited as Tominaga went through junior college at Ranger Community College. Even at those early stages, the obstacles weren't easy to overcome.

"I had zero English skills at the beginning when I came here," said Tominaga. "I was kind of all by myself I was doing translation on the phone… To figure it out, it was very tough."

But despite all that, Tominaga still thrived and maintained a good impression.

"We went down there and watched one of his first games, and I fell in love immediately," said his current coach at Nebraska, Fred Hoiberg.

"The thing that I was so impressed with Keisei is how he handled his time at Ranger playing for Billy Gillespie. Billy is a very difficult, demanding, and tough coach, and anytime he got on Keisei, you just saw Keisei smile and nod. Now, I don't know if he understood what Billy was saying to him—maybe that's why—but in talking to Billy and talking to their coaching staff, they loved Keisei. He was very coachable, and that certainly is how he's been since he's been here."

It didn't take long to confirm that Tominaga's next step forward would be in Nebraska with the Huskers.

 

"We're here in Nebraska; we're like, 'You know what? Let's give it a chance'," said Virgilio. "Coach Hoiberg liked him. He's the type of player that fits well in our offensive style; we talked to him, we offered him, he committed, and we were just waiting for him to get on campus."

Tominaga made sure the wait was worthwhile.

"I'll never forget Keisei walking into the Hendriks Complex the first time," said Hoiberg. "He had just gotten off, I think, a 20-hour travel day. He walked in, had a jacket on, and went to the left corner. I just threw him the ball, and he rose up and made it. Then I threw him another one, and he made it. He made about 20 in a row after that long travel day."

"Now I don't know if that tells you that a guy's going to be able to play in the Big 10 or not, but it certainly got me excited to see a guy that is that natural when it doesn't take a warmup and you have to get up and down a little bit. The guy had just gotten off one of the longest travel days that you can have when he traveled from Japan to Nebraska and got off and just knocked down 20 straight, but that's who he is. I mean, Keisei can walk in a gym after a week off, and it's like he never skipped a beat."

"I played with Chris Mullen, who was maybe as good a pure shooter as anybody," added Hoiberg, a 10-year veteran player in the NBA. "I've played with Reggie Miller, who was the most clutch shooter. I played for Larry Bird.

"[Tominaga's] work ethic, his drive, the passion that he plays with, I would put it up against any of those guys."

That's a high level of praise from an accomplished individual who has also coached many years in the NBA as well, but Hoiberg knows where it's coming from. He knows there's a weight that Tominaga carries on his shoulders, similar to what Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura had when they were playing in the USA.

"Playing [3x3] in the Olympic Games in Japan and representing his home country, that is not easy to handle a lot of times, but you just see the type of player and the type of confidence and swagger that Keisei plays with," Hoiberg explained. "He got an unbelievable experience representing his home country in Japan. Fast forward to this past summer, where Keisei represented his team in the World Cup. He was one of five NCAA players that represented their country in the World Cup and he was the only one that averaged double figures."

The 22-year-old averaged 11.4 points on 2.4 made three-pointers per game with a 37.5 percent three-point shooting rate, highlighted by 22 points in a crucial Paris 2024 spot-clinching win over Cape Verde for Japan. It's something he will certainly never forget.

 

"It was nice to be representing my country in Japan," said Tominaga. "A great experience for me, probably the best memory in my life ever."

"Walking on the streets in Japan, people recognize me a lot more than before," he added. "It's kind of crazy for me that so many people know about me."

That's because Tominaga has been a superstar throughout the early stages of his national team career, from his outstanding youth stints up to his senior national team appearances. Aside from his recent World Cup debut, Tominaga also played for Akatsuki Japan at the FIBA Asia Cup in 2022, averaging 15.2 points and 3.8 made three-pointers on 41.2 percent three-point shooting. He scored 33 points in the quarterfinals against Australia, the most by a player 21 years of age or younger in the competition in the 21st century.

A young player with that amount of recognition and fame can let it get to their heads. There are more than enough cautionary tales. But the fact that Tominaga remains humble and level-headed is as important to his character as his long-range shooting.

"When you look at Keisei and his overall body of work and the popularity that he has in his home country, the way he handles it, I think, is more important than any of it."

"He is a larger-than-life figure over there. They look up to him in a huge way. Anytime I see a social media post about Keisei, it just blows up and he's so humble through it all."

"Not many people in college basketball right now have had a direct tweet from Steph Curry, which is pretty incredible and remarkable, but Keisei didn't come in here saying, 'Hey, did you see this? Did you see that?'. He just let it go, didn't say one word about it, and came in and went about his business like he does every day. So, I'm just so impressed with his mentality, and, truly, I think that's what makes him special."

 

Fans in Japan and Asia will definitely continue looking forward to witnessing his specialness, whether it be through the upcoming windows of the FIBA Asia Cup 2025 qualifiers, the FIBA Asia Cup 2025 itself in Saudi Arabia should Japan qualify, the Olympic Games, or looking further ahead to World Cup 2027 in Qatar and beyond.

FIBA