As the NBA’s fanbase expands to a global audience, Latin America and Europe are no longer ‘developing’ markets for the league. Although basketball lacks the fan base of baseball in Japan, it’s a sport gaining in popularity. There are many die hard Japanese NBA fans. Basketball has been a theme in manga books and video games, and the public is anxious to see more Japanese names on the backs of NBA jerseys.
Players that Paved the Way
It’s commonly known that Japanese baseball players get regularly recruited by MLB teams, but basketball players from the Asian island nation are not frequent targets of NBA scouts. However, it’s worth remembering that the first drafted Japanese player was Yasutaka Okayama. The Golden State Warriors selected Okayama in 1981, but he never played in a regular-season game.
The next samurai to receive a call from an NBA team was Yuta Tabuse – the point guard got a chance with the Phoenix Suns in 2004, where he played four official games before being waived. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but another Yuta made it to the big league after the Memphis Grizzlies signed Yuta Watanabe in 2018. The small forward is currently on the roster of the Toronto Raptors.
Rui Hachimura, born to a Japanese mother and Beninse father has proven to be an exceptional talent for Japan. He was selected 9th overall by the Washington Wizards in 2019 after forgoing his last year of college eligibility with Gonzaga. In December of 2019, Hachimura and the Wizards faced off with Yuta Watanabe and Memphis Grizzlies. It was the first ever meeting of two Japanese born players in NBA history.
Rising Talent in the Land of the Rising Sun
Several players have cut their teeth in the NBA G-league and show potential to join an NBA squad in the upcoming years. It is time to get to know some of those talented players.
The passion for basketball runs in the Baba family. Yudai’s father played for the national team back in the 70s. Theson has also taken up the mantle on the national team as current starting shooting guard for the Japan National Team.
Baba’s performance at the University of Tsukuba, and later as a professional with Alvark Tokyo, brought him to the attention of the Dallas Mavericks scouts. He signed there in 2019. In standard practice for the NBA, Yudai was moved to the Texas Legends, an affiliate team of the Mavericks, competing in the G League.
Throughout 41 games, Baba showed his potential, but in 2020, he got a better offer from Melbourne United and moved to the Australian NBL. After one season in Australia he made his comeback to the Texas Legends in 2021. For the upcoming 2022-2023 season, Yudai is again heading down under and rejoining Melbourne United, hoping to repeat the NBL Grand Final from 2020. Baba is one of the strongest contenders to find a future spot on an NBA roster.
Togashi learned his basketball skills in the USA while playing for the Mustangs, a high school team that represented the Montrose Christian School in the state of Maryland. Yuki did not move to an NCAA college and returned to Japan in 2013.
After a season with the Akita Northern Happinets, Togashi flew back over the Pacific and joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2014. He was only there for a short summer stay, after transitioning to the Texas Legends.
Sadly, injuries took Yuki out of the roster. After the season he headed to Italy for a stint, but he ultimately decided to return to Japan. Upon his return he signed with the Chiba Jets, where he is currently playing. Winning the MVP award in 2019 in the B.Leagues signals Togashi is still a valuable player that can potentially find a future spot as a rotation player on an NBA team.
Schafer had the opportunity to experience the best of two worlds as a child of a mixed marriage. Avi’s father is an American and his mother is Japanese. Born in Osaka, the power forward stayed loyal to his country of birth and is a member of Japan’s national basketball team. Schafer studied at Georgia Tech and played for the Yellow Jackets. By joining Alvark Tokyo in 2018, Avi started his professional basketball career.
The SeaHorses Mikawa are his current team, and Schafer will remain in Mikawa after another season’s contract extension. In 2022, Schafer was named to the B.League All-Star list for the second year in a role. Avi’s consistent production on the court as a scorer and rebounder indicates he can be a reliable sixth man on an NBA team.
Unlike other players on our list, the power forward has still not submitted an application for the NBA Draft.