OKINAWA CITY ― Wherever he's played during his pro basketball career, Yudai Baba has exhibited a tireless work ethic. Bountiful energy and explosive athleticism are his trademarks on the court.
While appearing in games for the B.League's Alvark Tokyo (2017-19), the NBA League's Texas Legends (three stints: 2019-20, 2021-22 and 2022-23) and the Australian NBL's Melbourne United (2020-21), nobody ever accused him of giving lackluster effort.
The same is true of Baba when he wears a Japan national team uniform ― for practices and intrasquad scrimmages, exhibition games and official contests.
Akatsuki Japan's opening game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup on Friday night, August 25 featured flashes of quality play at both ends of the floor for the host team at Okinawa Arena. But Germany jumped out to a big lead early and sustained a high level of play throughout the Group E match to earn a convincing 81-63 victory.
Baba was one of the bright spots for Japan against world No 11 Germany.
With the ball in his hands, Baba displayed a sense of purpose whenever he drove the lane and attacked the basket. He also ran without the ball, staying active on offense as his teammates looked to find him to initiate scoring plays.
Dunks and layups, including baseline reverse layups, demonstrated Baba's aggressive mindset throughout the game. In 29 minutes, he scored 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting, including 6 of 7 from inside the 3-point arc.
Baba, who has played guard and small forward for the Legends (the Dallas Mavericks' G League affiliate) during his years on the team, said he had one thought on his mind throughout the game.
"I was determined to fight through the 40 minutes," Baba told reporters.
Baba Displays Strong Rapport with Watanabe
The former Toyama Daiichi High School and University of Tsukuba standout also showed his strong rapport with veteran Japan national team forward Yuta Watanabe, hooking up for a well-timed alley-oop in the fourth quarter with 4:56 remaining. Watanabe had a thunderous dunk to give the home crowd a moment of joy.
Although he said he appreciated the support from Japan's fans, the 196-cm Baba said he only concentrated on the game plan when he stepped onto the court. In his opinion, Baba said he didn't feel he had to do anything else.
"Actually, you know, I was focusing on the game 100 percent," Baba told reporters.
"I was able to hear the voices from the fans, but I didn't feel any pressure."
Baba averaged 12.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game for the Legends last season. Both statistics indicate that he's a capable player defined by productivity.
He also has winning experience, helping lead the Alvark to back-to-back B.League titles (and was named MVP of the 2019 B.League championship final ). And then he experienced the ultimate thrill with Melbourne United, winning the 2021 NBL championship and receiving the team's Defensive Player of the Year honor.
Insights on Watanabe's Play
As Baba and his Japan teammates shift their attention to facing Finland on Sunday (tipoff at 9:10 PM JST), head coach Tom Hovasse said the team can glean positives from its overall effort against Germany, including Watanabe's performance (20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks).
"I just told him in the locker room I thought he played fantastic," Hovasse said of Watanabe. "He [just] didn't make his shots (9 of 19)..."
Hovasse mentioned that Watanabe had a calf injury in early July and was sidelined for 10 days after sustaining an ankle injury in an exhibition game against Angola on August 15. Those were obstacles he overcame to play in the Basketball World Cup opener.
"The guy's not in game shape," Hovasse pointed out, "but to play that controlled against a team like Germany, I thought he was fantastic."
Like Baba, Watanabe gave Japan a high-energy performance at both ends of the floor.
'Playing Under Control'
Both players are an irreplaceable part of the current squad's pulse.
Hovasse continued his breakdown of Watanabe's 2023 tourney debut this way: "Some of those rebounds, his defense, the blocks, and, man, he played close to 30 minutes.
"So if you're playing 30 minutes and you're not in game shape, 100 percent game shape, you're playing smart. You're playing under control."
Playing under control without squandering any opportunities to impact the game will be what Yudai Baba aims to accomplish against Finland, a team which will also be seeking its first win of the tournament. (In Friday's early game, Australia defeated Finland 98-72.)
"The tournament is not over," Baba said, underlining Japan's goal of recording a bounce-back win on Sunday.
Author: Ed Odeven