Hirotaka Yoshii: Finding and fitting into his role with Akatsuki Japan
BEIRUT (Lebanon) - As Akatsuki Japan continue to build the foundation of its national team program, you see many promising talents younger than 25 years old. You can see it in their list of players initially called up to the training camp in preparation for Window 6 of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers at the end of January.
|Japan 18-player training camp in preparation for Window 6|
|Nick Fazekas||Makoto Hiejima||Luke Evans|
|Yuya Nagayoshi||Yutaro Suda||Seiya Ando|
|Kosuke Hashimoto||Yuki Togashi||Shuto Ando|
|Takumi Saito||Matthew Aquino||Kazuki Hosokawa|
|Hirotaka Yoshii||Koya Kawamata||Kai Toews|
|Yudai Nishida||Soichiro Inoue||Yuki Kawamura|
Hirotaka Yoshii is one of them.
However, the 24-year-old's journey is a bit different from his similar-aged peers.
"There is only a small percentage of basketball players anywhere in the world who is able to play in the World Cup for their national team."
The 1.96M (6'5") forward was not a featured star of youth national team programs like Yudai Nishida, Yuki Kawamura, or Keisei Tominaga. He hasn’t even played for a youth national team, unlike Soichiro Inoue, though he was a candidate to make the final roster for the U19 World Cup in 2017. Even Kai Toews, who was not a part of the youth national team programs, had made a name for himself as the NCAA Division I leader in assists back in 2018-19.
Hirotaka Yoshii doesn’t have that kind of resume.
He’s played in Japan’s B.League ever since 2018 and has been a key piece of the mighty Alvark Tokyo for the past two years, but it wasn’t as if he was lighting the league on fire.
"To tell the truth, I never thought about playing for the national team," Yoshii confessed.
Yet, there he was on 1 July 2022, suiting up as a starter for Akatsuki Japan as they tipped off against Australia in the third window of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers. Not only was it his first time starting for the national team, but it was also his first game with the national team ever.
"When I did get called up, I thought it was simply a great honor to play for the team."
"Playing for Japan has been a valuable experience for me," He added. "I don’t get many minutes in my club so I am thankful for being able to play in games with the national team. I also think that it has been a good opportunity for myself and my name to be known to others."
Yoshii was not just a one-time afterthought addition to coach Tom Hovasse’s roster either. After making his debut in Window 3, Yoshii also started three of five Asia Cup 2022 games and has been a part of the team in the Asian Qualifiers windows since.
Over the 11 games in 2022 that he played for the flag, Yoshii has played a total of 229 minutes. Among all of the players that have played for Japan this past year, only Luke Evans, Yuki Togashi, and Yudai Nishida have played more than Yoshii.
Not bad for someone who still has some doubt about his own level of play.
"There are times that I think I had a good play here and there," he admits. "But I don’t think I am good at basketball yet."
Coach Tom Hovasse might not entirely agree with his player on that. While there’s still room for Yoshii to improve, he’s certainly earned his part on the court for Akatsuki Japan. His counting numbers (6.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in the Qualifiers) might not pop out, but he’s proved his worth as a defender.
This matches well with his choice of jersey number ("91") which is inspired by Dennis Rodman ("When I was in high school, I liked Dennis Rodman").
In his limited minutes playing for his professional club, Yoshii specializes in playing defense against foreign players. A large part of that is because of his height, which allows him to better cover these "imports" who usually have that size advantage against the general local Japanese player. His height was also a part of his basketball origin story ("I started playing basketball in third grade when the coach invited me to play because of how tall I was") and Yoshii has made good use of that ever since.
When Hovasse came on board as the head of the men’s national team, he scouted for youth and length, so as a result, Yoshii has been one of the staples of this program so far. It’s not a given, but considering the playing time that has been invested in developing Yoshii, there seems to be a good chance that the young forward will be a part of the team that will play at the World Cup that will be co-hosted in Okinawa, Japan later in the year.
"There is only a small percentage of basketball players anywhere in the world who is able to play in the World Cup for their national team," he said. "[To be a part of this program] is representing and playing with a lot of responsibilities."
Again, Yoshii considers himself as being lengths away from being a "good player". But while being with the national team, going up against physical teams like Australia and Iran, and just learning from Yuta Watanabe at the Asia Cup, he’s finding his role on the team and improving in that role with each passing game.
Even though he might not have an extensive resume as that of the majority of his teammates, he built a strong one right now - one that could add FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 experience real soon.