When the 2019-2020 NBA regular season formally opens in a couple of weeks, it’s very likely that Japan will have not one, not two, but three of its national players seeing action in the best professional basketball league in the world.
These are Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards, Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies and Yudai Baba of the Dallas Mavericks.
In effect, Japan is the only Asian country that will be represented in the NBA this season aside from New Zealand and Australia, which are technically part of FIBA Asia, but not of the Asian continent.
Jordan Clarkson, of course, is still with the Cleveland Cavaliers and although he had seen action for the Philippines in the 18th Asian Games, we can’t really say that he’s a product of the Philippine basketball ecosystem in the same way Hachimura, Watanabe and Baba are.
Take note that all these three Japanese players, who also saw action for Japan’s youth teams, are eligible to play as locals under the FIBA rules and have represented their country in the senior level as well.
Most recently, Hachimura, Watanabe and Baba were in China for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Hachimura was the team’s top draw as he averaged 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with his best performance coming against the Czech Republic, where he erupted for 21 points, six rebounds and four assists on a 66.7 percent field goal shooting.
Meanwhile, Watanabe was Japan’s most efficient player.
He turned a lot of heads when he exploded for 34 points in Japan’s final game of the tournament against Montenegro. All in all, he normed 15.6 points and 5.6 rebounds during the prestigious competition.
As for Baba, the 23-year-old wingman was most impressive against no less than the United States, where he racked up 18 points on an efficient 8-for-15 field goal shooting.
He averaged 9.2 points, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals the entire tournament.
The prospect of seeing all three young Japanese stars in action in the NBA prompted me to reflect and ask: How come Japan has successfully produced three locally developed NBA talents and we haven’t?
Consider that in 2014, Japan was actually suspended by the International Basketball Federation because its federation was having trouble resolving the issues stemming from having two competing top-tier leagues — the BJ League and the Japanese NBL.
It was a dark era for Japanese basketball then, but from the ashes were born a newfound passion for the sport and a much more dynamic federation.
Now, Japan has found success in all levels in both men’s and women’s divisions as well as full 5-on-5 and 3×3.
The Japanese have been a model of success for Asian basketball and having Hachimura, Watanabe, and Baba in the NBA surely underscored that fact.
Looking inward, a basketball country like ours should have even more potential to produce NBA-level talent, yes?
In theory and on paper, sure, but sometimes I think that our own passion for the game gets twisted and actually diverts from having sustained breakthroughs in the international scene.
In other words, we are getting in our own way of excelling on the international stage and producing truly world-class basketball talent.
But I believe that if Japan can do it, we can, too. But it won’t be easy.
I’m already sounding like a broken record, but for us to strengthen our chances of doing well on the international stage and producing breakthrough NBA-level talent, we would need a paradigm shift throughout the entire spectrum of Philippine basketball.
I will discuss more of it in future columns.