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[ODDS and EVENS] Yudai Baba Embraces a Bigger Role on the Japan National Team

Returning to the B.League before the 2023-24 season as a veteran leader for the Nagasaki Velca has helped Yudai Baba become a go-to scorer for Akatsuki Japan.

Roles and goals go hand in hand. Take Yudai Baba, for example. 

An expanded role for Baba on the Japan men's basketball national team is one of the building blocks of head coach Tom Hovasse's vision for the team. 

Against China in a 2025 FIBA Asia Cup qualifier on Sunday, February 25, that specific goal's implementation was on display. Baba was a game-changing presence for Akatsuki Japan in a 76-73 triumph at Ariake Coliseum.

There is a direct link between Baba's dynamic effort against China and a discussion he had with Hovasse about the 2023-24 pro basketball calendar.

In short, Hovasse envisioned Baba becoming more of a featured scorer for the national team. And after Japan defeated China to improve to 2-0 in Group C first-round qualifiers, the coach recalled that he believed Baba would benefit from being able to further develop his offensive repertoire as a go-to scorer. (More on that below.)

In his game-high 24-point performance against China, Baba showed that his return to the B.League to play for the Nagasaki Velca in the prime of his career is paying dividends. 

Yudai Baba
Japan's Yudai Baba drives to the basket in the second quarter against China. (©SANKEI)

Yudai Baba Plays Starring Role in Japan's Victory

After a dynamic effort that included 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range and 8-for-8 at the free-throw line along with four rebounds, two assists and a steal in more than 37 minutes, Baba offered his thoughts on Japan's performance.

"We started shooting well in the first half, and in the second half we attacked well and were able to give the team momentum," Baba was quoted as saying by NHK.

With an explosive first step and playing at both ends of the court with abundant energy, Baba paced Japan with nine first-half points versus China in a game that was knotted at 38-38 entering the third quarter.

Presenting the view that Akatsuki Japan is a work in progress and has not yet reached its potential, Baba told reporters, "We have yet to play the kind of basketball we want to play, and we will be facing stronger and stronger opponents."

At the upcoming Paris Olympics, the 12-team men's tournament will tip off on July 27, and Japan is one of eight nations to already qualify. The others: Australia, Canada, host France, Germany, Serbia, South Sudan and the United States.

Noting that the competition calendar shifts back to the B.League through the end of May, Baba highlighted this focus after the China game.

"We will now return to league play," he told reporters, "but we will take it one day at a time, and we will work together to do our best."

Yudai Baba
Nagasaki Velca swingman Yudai Baba in action against the Akita Northern Happinets on January 21 in Akita. (B.LEAGUE)

An Update on Baba's Season

Baba, who began his pro career with the Alvark Tokyo in 2017, is averaging a career-high 14.3 points and 9.35 shots per game for the Velca in 34 games (27 starts). American teammate Matt Bonds leads the Velca in scoring (15.1 points) nearly two-thirds of the way through the 60-game season. 

Baba scored a season-best 28 points against the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins on November 8, 2023.

Nagasaki (16-23) is preparing to play its 40th and 41st games on Saturday and Sunday, March 2 and 3 against the visiting Gunma Crane Thunders.

In 2022-23, Baba appeared in 23 games for the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks' NBA G League affiliate. He averaged 12.3 points and 9.2 field-goal attempts per game.  

When the announcement was made that Baba would play for the Velca in the 2023-24 campaign, he explained why he decided to join the squad.

"The reason why I chose this team was that I believe this is the best choice for me to get better for the Paris Olympics," Baba told reporters in Nagasaki. "Through [FIBA Basketball] World Cup experiences, playing against top-level players in the world made me feel that I need to get better as a player to achieve my goal to become a NBA player."

Yudai Baba
Yudai Baba dunks against Cape Verde in a 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup game in Okinawa City. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

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Baba's Evolving Role for Akatsuki Japan

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Baba averaged 9.7 points in three games. Then, in 2023, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Okinawa City, he contributed 6.4 points for the national team in five games.

Indeed, other players, including leading scorer Josh Hawkinson (21.0 ppg), who's currently a Sunrockers Shibuya standout, NBA forward Yuta Watanabe (14.8 ppg) and point guard Yuki Kawamura (13.6 ppg) were more the focal point of Japan's offense.

In Sunday's postgame news conference, Hovasse shared background on his thoughts on this stage of Baba's career, both on the national team and as a pro player.

"He and I spoke before he made the decision [to join the Velca]," Hovasse pointed out. "I was happy with whatever he wanted to do. But I really think at this point in his career he needs to be the main guy in these games in the B.League. And that's going to be a really big part of his growth, and what I'm super proud about. When we first started playing I asked him to become more of a scorer, like a shoot-first mentality."

After leading the Japan women's team to a silver medal at the Tokyo Games, Hovasse changed jobs. He took over as the Japan men's national team bench boss after the delayed 2020 Olympics wrapped up in August 2021. So there's been plenty of time for the veteran coach to analyze Baba's all-around game.

Yudai Baba
Yudai Baba takes a long-range shot against China in the third quarter on February 25. (©SANKEI)

Becoming More of a 3-Point Threat

Citing Baba's aforementioned 4-for-6 shooting effort from 3-point range, Hovasse stated, "That's what I envisioned, a balance to his game where they are going to have to play him on the 3-point shot."

Again, remember this: Baba's speed and athleticism factor into this. 

Because Baba demonstrated he could be a big scoring threat on the perimeter, nailing shots from beyond the 3-point arc, China had to defend accordingly.

Or as Hovasse put it: "Now China had to play him on the 3-point shot, and that opens up his driving lanes, and that gets him to the free-throw line.

"And then once he's comfortable where he's getting more and more comfortable with it, he's just going to really blossom, I think even more and more. I'm really excited for Yudai."

And as Akatsuki Japan continues to make adjustments between now and the start of the Paris Olympics, Yudai Baba's skills are a vital part of the team's plans.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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