Feature | Basketball

Yudai Baba aims to follow Rui Hachimura's lead

Japanese playoff final MVP hopes to join Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe in the NBA after guiding his country to FIBA World Cup knockout stages

By Rory Jiwani ·

Rui Hachimura may be Japan's star name at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but they are far from a one-man team.

Yuta Watanabe will soon start his second season with the Memphis Grizzlies while Yudai Baba is coming off playing NBA Summer League for the Dallas Mavericks.

That experience has had a profound effect on Baba who is determined to be more aggressive on court.

"It’s a combat sport. You win or lose - you have to display the mentality, otherwise you’re not going to win." - Yudai Baba to the Japan Times

Shooting guard Baba was the finals MVP of the B.League, Japan's premier basketball competition, for champions Alvark Tokyo.

The 24-year-old hopes to follow Watanabe and Washington Wizards' first-round draft pick Hachimura into the NBA.

But first, he wanted to leave his mark on the FIBA World Cup.

"This tournament is a valuable experience for me," he said.

Like father, like son

Yudai Baba is the son of Toshiharu Baba who represented the Japanese national team in the 1970s and 80s.

He played under his father at Toyama Daiichi High School where Baba Sr is still head coach.

Baba then enjoyed a stellar college career, leading the University of Tsukuba to the national championship in 2015 and 2016, before joining Alvark Tokyo.

He has since established himself in the national side and was the star attraction when Japan played successive qualifiers against Qatar and Kazakhstan in his home town of Toyama.

While American-born former NBA player Nick Fazekas was the standout with double-doubles in both wins, including 41 points against Kazakhstan, Baba played his part and nearly brought the house down with his trademark one-handed dunk.

His father was there to see it with young Baba grateful for the role he has played in his career.

He told the Japan Times, "It was my father who gave me the reason to start playing basketball and I’m where I am because of him.

"He won’t be able to see me play in person as much going forward. So every time he does, I would like to show my growth as a player in front of him."

If Baba has his way, his father will see even less of him in the future.

"I’ve always set my goal to play abroad and I’m always thinking of what I should do to achieve that." - Yudai Baba to the Japan Times

Yudai Baba playing for Japan against Kazakhstan in the FIBA World Cup Asia qualifier in Toyama on 3 December 2018

Baba gets to work behind 'Big Three'

Hachimura is their main asset, both at the World Cup and Tokyo 2020, with fellow forward Watanabe and Fazekas completing the 'Big Three' who played key roles in Japan securing eight consecutive wins to make the World Cup after an 0-4 start in Asian qualifiers.

Behind them, Baba and New Orleans Pelicans Summer Leaguer Makoto Hiejima will have to make their shots from the perimeter.

"The players who are ready to compete with the world have gathered." - Yudai Baba speaking to FIBA.

If Baba inspires them to success, that NBA dream could become a reality.

Japan players (L-R) Yudai Baba, Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura during the match with Germany in Saitama on 24 August 2019