31 August, 2019
15 September
Japan pin their hopes on their terrific trio of stars
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Terrific trio carry Japan's World Cup dreams

TOKYO (Japan) - Rui Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe and Nick Fazekas are expected to banner what can potentially be Japan's best showing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019.

The Akatsuki Five are making just their fifth appearance at the quadrennial event, with their highest finish at eleventh place in 1967.

This time around, however, the Japanese have a pair of legitimate NBA talents together with the best and brightest stars of the B.League ready to make a big splash in China.

"Japan hasn’t had a lineup like this before, and I think, looking around the world, there are few teams that can form a lineup like this. I’m thrilled about it."Rui Hachimura

Coach Julio Lamas's full 16-man complement finally tipped their training camp off a couple of weeks ago, with the Washington Wizards' Hachimura and the Memphis Grizzlies' Watanabe among the major draws.

"Both of them are still young as players yet are working so hard," veteran Ryusei Shinoyama told the Japan Times. "We have been able to create a good mood with the entire team. Our team’s become even stronger than before."

With Hachimura and Watanabe, plus naturalized Japanese Nick Fazekas on the same team, Japan has the potential to reach another dimension at the upcoming World Cup with their size, athleticism and skills.

Hachimura, of course, was one of the biggest stars in the US NCAA this past season, while Watanabe cracked the Memphis roster and made quite the impression in the previous NBA campaign.

Adding to their firepower will be naturalized player Nick Fazekas, who was practically unstoppable in the Asian Qualifiers.

Interestingly, though, all three stars have never been on the same national team roster at the same time. They all saw action in the Asian Qualifiers, but the trio were never together for the same game.

The American-born Fazekas, for his part, had a lot of great things to say about his up-and-coming teammates.

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"They’re obviously hard to guard," Fazekas described Hachimura and Watanabe. "But at the same time, they’re making plays at both ends of the floor. So they’ve definitely raised the level."

Apart from them, other talents expected to light up the scoreboard for Japan are sweet-shooting wingmen Yudai Baba and Makoto Hiejima, both of whom saw action at the NBA Summer League 2019.

Regarding their chances at the World Cup, the 23-year-old Baba was upbeat, highlighting how Hachimura can lead them to unprecedented success.

"Hachimura doesn’t have to give his 100 percent and is still able to play well enough," Baba explained. "And everybody else has to work really hard to keep up with him. He’s given a lot of inspiration to the entire team."

Even the 2.03m (6ft 8in) Hachimura himself feels that this iteration of the squad is special.

"Japan hasn’t had a lineup like this before, and I think, looking around the world, there are few teams that can form a lineup like this," the wide-eyed NBA rookie said. "I’m thrilled about it."

Japan are, in fact, coming off a rousing win against New Zealand in their first tune-up game in preparation for the World Cup, 99-89. Hachimura, not surprisingly, was Japan's spearhead with 35 points.

Baba also impressed against the Tall Blacks, soaring his way to 12 points, 6 assists and 3 steals. If he can continue raising the level of his game, Japan will be even more dangerous.

"Yudai Baba is getting better and better," said Fazekas. "And from the transition standpoint, with him and Yuta running the sides and Rui running down the center, space is going to be there."

Japan are set to begin their World Cup campaign in Shanghai against Turkey on September 1 before facing the Czech Republic and Team USA on September 3 and 5 respectively.