I interviewed Naoto Tsuji, SG of the Kawasaki Brave Thunders.
(The article can be found here:
Naoto Tsuji showed up for the interview soon after practice ended. There was still sweat shining off his fair skin.
An image of him as the "Sun of Japanese Basketball" came to mind unbidden. From his time at Rakunan High School, through Aoyama University, and now with the Kawasaki (previously Toshiba) Brave Thunders, he has been immersed in the top ranks in Japan. And he has triumphed over them at every level.
His wholesomeness brightens the room. Experiencing his aura in person was more intoxicating then you would have been led to believe by his unflinching play and his great outside shooting.
From the very beginning of his basketball days, he was one of those rare types who liked shooting from 3 point range. The younger elementary school kids can't normally hit from there. But this kid was different.
"My wrist was probably strong because I had played as a pitcher in softball. I never thought that my shooting felt too bad from the very start."
He says that he started basketball, and loved to shoot because of the influence of his older brother who was a shooter.
In 9th grade, while his future was still undecided, he had the chance to join one of Rakunan High School's practices. It just so happened that, at the time, they had one more slot available on the team. And the young Tsuji had a great day. That opening was filled on the spot.
He believed that shooting was the skill would allow him to play in games and to survive in the high school basketball powerhouse he had joined. He improved his shooting so much that he won a position in the starting lineup as a junior.
He then entered Aoyama University. He was already known as a shooter, and he came to know that other teams believed that they only had to prevent him from shooting. Out of frustration, he decided to improve his passing. He started to watch film of the Pacers' Jason Kidd and of Jason Williams, who were stars in the NBA at the time. And he started to practice passing as well.
The dual threats that the modern Tsuji now wields are his 3 point shooting and his exceptional passing.
He says that it is good to try everything. He even tried Curry's step back three during today's practice. He joked that "it was blocked", but he wasn't clowning around. He is always looking to evolve and move forward.
When you are closely guarded, you have to have a quick release. To get that, he sometimes turns his step into a jump stop when shooting. He is always consciously preparing and shaping his lower body as fast as he can. "If I can get just a step away then I can shoot." Just like the ball bounces, he uses the momentum of his bounce to shoot.
In July, 2016, Tsuji was a primary member of the Japanese National Team that competed in the World Qualifying Tournament for the Rio Olympics. One thing that he experienced directly during that competition was the difference in individual strength. As part of that, he felt that the difference in physicality was huge.
When you are closely guarded, one technique is to give a little push to your opponent to delay him an instant in order to get free. But that was ineffective in the World Qualifying Tournament. The European players were so large and heavy that he wasn't able to push away, and he couldn't create space. They just stayed with him. Even if he got the ball, they were all over him 1-on-1. He wasn't able to lead as he would have liked. He learned the hard way that they were lacking in the physicality that is a prerequisite for competing.
He says that it made him think about the types of situation in which you shoot. Maybe the real skill in shooting doesn't lie with the free shots, but in being able to sink baskets when you can't get free easily. The World Qualifying Tournament redefined for the shooter Tsuji what the skill in shooting is.
Under Technical Director Higashino, the program to strengthen the National Team has been covering many days and much content and trying out many new and substantial things. For Tsuji, who had experienced the World Qualifying Tournament, no matter how much time they spend on it, it isn't enough. He himself has asked whether the two or three days once a month to fully develop individual skills and to physically prepared should be more like an entire month. I wonder if they need to do the type of strengthening in basketball that Eddie Japan (Jones) did in rugby. This is tough for the athletes, but even if they insist that they will make progress just by playing in the B League, nothing will change. There is no hope for a big change in the future down that path.
Throughout his career, Tsuji has run into a wall every time he stepped onto a bigger stage.
As someone who has recognized every such situation himself; as someone who has put in the effort to get out of those situations; as someone who has prevailed; and as a member of the Japanese National Team -- he certainly recognizes the current situation.
He has a competitive side where he enjoys sinking a basket when the defense is desperately trying to come stop him. More so than shooting when free. He laughs that he can be awful.
I have an image of him as the "Sun of Japanese Basketball." It is definitely not an image of him as an inhuman monster of an athlete, or as an arrogant unapproachable samurai. But as some one who is loved by others and who shines with a special light in his connections with other people. That is the type of gift that I felt that Naoto Tsuji possesses.