Basketball/Zentro Basket Madrid* SHIZUOKA GYMRATS
After moving to Spain at the age of 15 to join the junior category of Madrid’s prestigious basketball team Zentro Basket Madrid, Okada made his professional debut in the fourth division Liga EBA at only 17 years old. In addition to playing in Spain during basketball season, he was also invited to play in Basketball Without Borders Asia 2022 as well as Basketball Without Borders Global 2023 and was selected to be on the Japanese national team. As his list of activities expanded, expectations for his future career are rising dramatically. In this second half of the interview, Okada speaks about the various challenges he experienced for the first time in his career.
Discovering his current place among top players of the same age
Taiga Okada has been steadily building his career in Spain, to a level that his coach at Zentro Basket Madrid expects him to play in a way that helps the team win. From 2022 to 2023, his outstanding performances were seen in other occasions outside of the Spanish League.
First, in August 2022, Okada was invited to participate in Basketball Without Borders Asia 2022, a youth development camp co-hosted by the NBA and FIBA at the NBA Academy in Australia. Aimed to support the globalization of basketball and its communities, the camp was held over the course of four days in which 60 male and female athletes in their high school years gathered from 15 countries and regions in the Asia-Pacific, including eight players from Japan. Skills training and test games were conducted on the first day to assess the participants’ abilities to divide them into teams to hold a league competition over the next three days. Okada was recognized as one of the All-Stars of the camp, even though his team lost in the semi-finals.
Perhaps in recognition of his performance, Okada was also invited to the Basketball Without Borders Global 2023 camp in February 2023 as the only Japanese player. It is a prestigious camp in which Rui Hachimura has also participated in the past. Okada himself did not fully understand the significance of the invitation, however. When he asked a team staff member about it, they replied, “That’s amazing!” but he was still not able to fully realize what a special opportunity it was. Okada’s reaction is perhaps typical of him, as he has always been nonchalant about being “the first Japanese player” many times in the past.
Taiga Okada: Most of the players who participated in BWB Global were active players internationally or played for national teams. There were also players from the NBA Academy and even NBA draft prospects. It was an amazing environment to be in, and it felt like I finally reached the point where I’m invited to play in a place like that.
Okada also felt that even among some of the best young talents in the world, his skills were no less than theirs. In fact, he even gained a sense of confidence.
Taiga Okada: There were players whom I’ve played against in the Spanish league, and I felt that the level was not that different compared to the professional players in Liga EBA, so I was able to participate in the camp without feeling intimidated. This naturally gave me confidence. However, I did notice that the top players at the camp were a cut above the rest. I was able to experience their level of basketball firsthand, which led me to have a clear idea of new immediate goals to work towards if I wanted to reach a higher level.
At the camp where there were only young talents, the players who stood out were great finishers and 1-on-1 players. Okada realized that those two skills were where he found lots of room for improvement. He also felt that he still had to work on his scoring ability, passing skills, and increasing his basketball IQ. Attending the camp was a highly productive experience for Okada. Getting to know promising players and national team players from around the world will also perhaps become a great asset for him in the future.
The meaning of bearing the Japanese flag
The year 2023 has marked another milestone in Taiga Okada’s basketball career. He was called up to join the Japanese national team for the first time at the 2023 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Hungary from June. The head coach, Alejandro Martinez, is Spanish, so Okada was able to communicate smoothly and understand his style of play. Okada participated in the national team training camp and actively communicated with his Japanese teammates whom he was about to play together for the first time, sharing his experiences abroad, giving advice and exchanging information. He was also confident that he had the strongest passion to play for the Japan team.
Taiga Okada: Many of the players I played with in Spain were already members of national teams in their respective countries, and naturally I always assumed that I would eventually be selected as well, so being called up to the Japan team was a big deal for me. Even though it was in under category that I played this time , being on the Japan team is a chance for even casual basketball fans to get to know me and watch me play. Moreover, I hope to produce good results as a way of paying back to everyone who has supported me over the years. I’m filled with joy, expectation, and gratitude as I really look forward to playing against top players in the world
Akira Jacobs and Yuto Kawashima of the NBA Global Academy have also been selected for the Japan team, but Okada is the only player with professional experience overseas. Okada had a new role of sharing his experience with his teammates as they get ready for the World Cup.
Needless to say, Okada knows better than anyone that it is not easy for Japanese players to compete against international players, not only in terms of body size and composition but also in terms of experience. It will be tough to win and advance through the tournament, as he also remembered how the Japan team did not do so well in the last World Cup. But that was precisely why Okada is eager to bring victory to the national team as many times as possible and achieve record-breaking, history-making results. He is determined to play a central role and help the Japan team surpass its previous record ranking of 10th place.
Watch him play as a mature basketball player next season
After the World Cup which begins in June ends, the 2023-2024 season begins. As of June, Taiga Okada has not yet decided which team he will be playing for. However, his personal goal of becoming a player who leads the team to victory is something that he would continue to pursue no matter where he plays, whether it be Basketball Without Borders or the Japanese national team. Okada gained his speed and agility while in Japan, trained his passing skills and increased his basketball IQ in the junior category in Spain,
And courage to make decisions based on the individual ability as professional who has taken on the challenges in professional way. As we sit here excited about the upcoming season, we ask him if he has any advice for the younger generation.
Taiga Okada: I think it’s better to listen to people’s opinions when you’re young. It’s important to have your own opinion as well, but you’d need to broaden your perspective first. It’s okay to have a strong connection with one coach, but it’s also beneficial to talk to different people and watch various styles of play, then you can broaden your horizons not only about playing options such as passing and shooting skills but also sport of basketball itself. In Japan, when you hear “listen to other people’s opinions,” people tend to think that you’ll have to do what people tell you, but you can listen to other people’s opinion while you acknowledge them with your own draw and It’s up to you to decide what choices you want to make.
Ever since Taiga Okada was a child, his father has always told him, “Evidence over argument. Anyone can be just a talkative but what you really should do instead is to take action and produce results.” These words have become his motto.
Looking back on past interviews with Okada, we can clearly see that he has definitely achieved the goals he talked about himself in the previous year’s interviews by the time he interviewed the following year. In other words, there are arguments and he also put his words into practices and proved them in action with results. In May next year, he will finally reach the age of 20, a major milestone in his life. We cannot help but wonder where he will be on his path toward achieving his dreams and goals that he shared with us in this interview. Hopefully we’ll find out that answer during our next interview with Taiga Okada as an adult.