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The Rise of Japanese Basketball Players in the NBA

Japanese basketball players have traditionally failed to make the National Basketball League. However, there has been a lot of positive trends in the right direction for the Japanese basketball team. This includes being the co-hosts of the 2023 FIBA World Cup with the Philippines and Indonesia.

Japanese Basketball Players: Making their Name in the NBA

Rui Hachimura

Rui Hachimura is the first-born Japanese player (born in Toyama, Japan) to be drafted into the NBA, according to Sports Illustrated. After being selected ninth by the Washington Wizards in the 2019 NBA Draft, Hachimura immediately made his name known in the NBA. In the 2019-20 season, the 6-foot-8 small forward/power forward averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game.

He made quite an impression in his rookie season. It was so much that then Wizards and now Houston Rockets’ guard John Wall said this about Hachimura, according to NBC Sports.

“With me and Brad [Beal], who is a great cornerstone, and you have Rui [Hachimura] who is a rookie that’s in there, but I feel like we definitely need a three that’s a dog, that can knock down shots and compete and create for us. And then, we’ve also gotta build a bench, just being realistic,” Wall said.

This might seem like a small thing, but for an NBA All-Star like Wall to include Hachimura into the conversation is a big deal. Bradley Beal, who is currently one of the best Wizards’ players, also sang praise to Hachimura.

As a result, he made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2020. He has similar stats in the 2020-21 season. He is currently averaging 13.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game (all current stats are based at the end of February 27th).

It is important to note that he has improved his three-point percentage from 28.7 percent in the 2019-20 season to 30.2 percent this season. He recently had a double-double against the Chicago Bulls, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds on February 8th. His impressive play helped the Wizards beat the Bulls on the road with a 105-101 win.

Yuta Watanabe

Yuta Watanabe is a 6-foot-8 small forward/power forward for the Toronto Raptors. He was born in Yokohama, Japan, and entered the 2018 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, unlike Hachimura the year after, Watanabe went undrafted.

However, he did get playing time with the Memphis Grizzlies. In his rookie season, he averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in 15 games. In 2019-2020, he averaged 2.0 points and 1.1 rebounds per game in 18 games during his sophomore season.

Watanabe would take a huge step forward with the Raptors in the 2020-21 season. In 21 games, he is averaging 2.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, both career-highs. He also currently has a career-high in minutes played per game this season so far with 12.2 minutes per game.

However, what Watanabe might be best known for is how hard he plays on the court. This is what Raptors’ Head Coach Nick Nurse said about Watanabe and how hard he plays with the Raptors, according to Yahoo Sports Canada.

“He plays a bit frantic right because he’s just playing so hard all the time. I mean not frantic, I mean he’s pretty comfortable with the ball and stuff but he’s just constantly in motion which is really good, really helps our offense that he just cuts and moves and he runs out to the other side and there’s nothing he cuts back to the other side and he’s moving people around kind of by himself last two years.”

There is no doubt that Watanabe’s improvement in this season could be a big boost to the Japanese national basketball team. One of his most stand-out games came against the Orlando Magic this year on January 31st.

In that game, he had 11 points, one rebound, one steal, and three blocks. As a result, his performance helped the Raptors win 115-102 at Amelie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

Overview of the Rise of Japanese NBA Players

Japan traditionally does not produce many NBA players. There have, in fact, only been five players from Japan to ever play in the league. Watanabe and Hachimura have played the two most NBA minutes ever for a Japanese basketball player. This timing of the rise of Japanese basketball players has coincided with two big events coming up for Japan.

There is obviously the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which will host the men’s and women’s Olympic basketball tournaments. What most people might overlook though is the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Okinawa City, a city in Japan, is co-hosting it with Metro Manila and Bulacan of the Philippines, and Jakarta of Indonesia. It will be the first time-ever that Japan would at least co-host a FIBA World Cup.

There is a chance for Japan to create a legacy and establish themselves as the best team in Asia for years to come (not counting Oceania teams like Australia and New Zealand, who also play in Asian competitions). These two players are already positively affecting the popularity of Japanese basketball.

According to the SI Staff of FanNation, both Hachimura and Watanabe account for 46 percent of all jersey sales in Japan. Furthermore, the Raptors have become Japan’s best-selling merchandise because of Watanabe’s rise in the league. This shows how much Japanese basketball is growing because of Hachimura and Watanabe.

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Embed from Getty Images


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