Japanese men’s basketball traditionally does not have many players make the NBA. In the history of the NBA, there have only been five players to make the league and one of them played only four games in the NBA.
The Five Best NBA Players from Japan
5. Yuta Tabuse (2004) and 4. J.R. Henderson (now known as J.R. Sakuragi) (1998-99)
Yuta Tabuse played only four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 NBA season. He averaged 1.8 points and averaged 1.0 rebounds per game. Until recently, Tabuse was the only player born and bred in Japan to play in the NBA at the time. He was born in Kanazawa-ku, Yokohama in the Kanagawa Prefecture. He played high school in Noshiro, Akita at Noshiro Technical. Tabuse went undrafted in the 2002 NBA draft.
The point guard’s highlight was scoring seven points and grabbing one rebound for the Suns in the 2004 NBA season. In that game, the Suns easily defeated the Atlanta Hawks. The next two players on this list that have Japanese heritage grew up in the U.S.
J.R. Henderson (now known as J.R. Sakuragi) played one season in the NBA from 1998-99. He played in Canada with the Vancouver Grizzlies (now known as the Memphis Grizzlies). In that season, he averaged 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds per game in 30 games. A few years later he moved to Japan. According to Jerry Crowe of the LA Times, Henderson became a naturalized Japanese citizen sometime after playing in the NBA. He also played for the Japanese national basketball team.
His position was a small forward and he was drafted 56th by the Grizzlies in the 1998 NBA Draft. From 2007-20 he also played for Japanese-side, the SeaHorses Mikawa.
3. Nick Fazekas (2007-08)
Nick Fazekas was a forward and a center who played one season in the NBA. Like the previous two guys mentioned in the article, Fazekas only played one season in the NBA. In the 2007-08 NBA season, he averaged 4.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He played for both the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2007-08 NBA season. Like Sakuragi, Fazekas became a naturalized Japanese citizen. According to Joel Rush of Forbes, this is what Fazekas said about playing in Japan compared to playing in Europe:
“The grass really was greener on the other side in Asia than it was in Europe.”
This showed how much he enjoyed his time in Asia and specifically Japan. He like Sakuragi also played for the Japanese men’s national team even though they grew up in the U.S. Fazekas was drafted 34th in the 2007 NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks.
2. Yuta Watanabe (2018-Present)
The first current Japanese NBA player on the list. Yuta Watanabe is also the first player on this list to play more than one season in the NBA. Watanabe was born in Yokohama, Japan. His high schools included Jinsei Gakuen in Zentsūji, Japan. His other high school was St. Thomas More in Oakdale, Connecticut.
Nick Nurse, head coach of the Raptors, praised Watanabe and ended up saying this according to Aaron Rose of All Raptors.
“As soon as someone barely let it go into the post, he had already made his cut. It was boom, and he was right there at the rim. I kind of wish he could pass some of that knowledge on to other guys.”
He is currently a small forward/power forward with the Toronto Raptors. He did play for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2018-20. During that time, he also played for the Memphis Hustle, which is an NBA G-League team. His best performance came in the 2020-21 NBA season against the Orlando Magic. This was on April 16, 2021, where he got 21 points, six rebounds, and two assists. Watanabe can be an inspiration for many Japanese players. He was not drafted in the 2018 NBA draft but has found a way to contribute in the NBA.
In the 2021-22 NBA season, he is currently averaging 6.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game as of the early afternoon of December 17. He also got his first-ever career double-double on December 13. This was when Watanabe had 12 points and 11 rebounds along with two assists against the Sacramento Kings. The Raptors would win that game 124-101.
1. Rui Hachimura (2019-Present)
Rui Hachimura is a power forward for the Washington Wizards. He was born in the Toyama Prefecture in Japan. Hachimura was impressive in his rookie NBA season. He averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. As a result, Hachimura got the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2020.
Hachimura averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game. This is what Wes Unfeld Jr. said about Hachimura according to Mike Deprisco of NBC Sports.
“Rui is another talented young man who honestly gave [Denver] fits this season. So I think it’s kind of a blessing to be able to coach him instead of play against him.”
Hachimura really performed well as a rookie. This included scoring 27 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a 113-119 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on December 5, 2019. He has unfortunately been injured though and has not played a game in the 2021-22 NBA season. He was drafted ninth overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Wizards.
Overview of the Top Five Japanese Players in NBA History
There were only five Japanese players to have ever played in the NBA. Two of them grew up in America and became Japanese in their adulthood. There has been some history of NBA players coming from outside the U.S. like Canada, Spain, and also Great Britain. However, the number of Japanese NBA players right now is at its golden generation. They hosted the Summer Olympics this year in Tokyo, Japan.
The Japan men’s national team did not make it past the group stage, but the women’s national team won a historic silver medal at home. Also, current Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey coached in Japan. He coached Sekisui Chemical from 1989-92 and the Isuzu Motors Lynx from 1992-94. He was also part of the Japanese coaching staff around that time.
Other NBA Players in Asia and the Future of NBA Basketball in Japan
Two NBA players born and bred in Japan are currently plying their trade in the NBA. In fact, two of the three current NBA players that represent their country from Asia are from Japan. The other player represents the Philippines, namely Utah Jazz point guard/shooting guard, Jordan Clarkson. However, the team, which is nicknamed Gilas Pilipinas can select only one naturalized player who has been not brought up in the Philippines. They tend to play power forward/center Andray Blatche, who used to play in the NBA from 2005-14. Blatche for example played for the Philippines in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Japan also has a professional men’s basketball league called the B1 League. One of the teams in the league, the Ryukyu Golden Kings is also getting a new arena in Okinawa, Japan. This new arena will also be a venue for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, a tournament that will also be hosted by the Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a bright future for both men’s and women’s basketball in Japan. They could be a force in Asian basketball for years to come (note that this does not include Australia and New Zealand, who play in Asian-related competitions but are seen as Oceania basketball teams).
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