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It might be hard to believe now, as he begins his second season as UNC-Wilmington's starting point guard, but there was a time not long ago that Kai Toews was unsure if he would get the opportunity to play Division I basketball at all.
“My goal was to get a Division I scholarship, and my first two years, every opportunity I got, I failed to get an offer,” he said. “For a long time, it made me struggle, not knowing I could play at this level.”
Toews came to the United States at age 15 from Tokyo. Those initial tribulations tested him, but also brought him to an important realization.
“Overcoming that, finding out that you don’t need the most athletic ability to compete: If you can play the game of basketball, you can play,” he said.
And Toews can play.
Last season as a freshman at UNCW, he started 32-of-33 games, averaged 8.8 points per game, and at 7.7 assists an outing, ranked second in the nation among all Division I players.
Only this year’s early front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant, dished out more assists per game than Toews. He set the Colonial Athletic Association’s single-season record en route to All-Rookie recognition.
The numbers and accolades speak to the caliber of player Toews is quickly proving to be. So, too, does his head coach – and someone who’s spent a lot of time around some of the best collegiate point guards in recent memory – C.B. McGrath.
McGrath is in his third year with the Seahawks, having spent the previous 14 seasons as an assistant at North Carolina. Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall and Marcus Paige all came through Chapel Hill in McGrath’s tenure there.
“All the point guards I’ve coached have been very successful, but they’re all different players,” McGrath said. “Kai is a great pass-first point guard, who wants to set his teammates up for assists.”
Using Felton as an example, point guard of North Carolina’s 2005 national championship team and a longtime NBA veteran, McGrath said: “Raymond was always a competitor more than a point guard but turned himself into a pretty darn good point guard. Kai’s more of a true point guard. Everybody’s different, so we’ve got to maximize Kai’s passing ability.”
Every player is indeed different, from their style of play to their background. And a background does not get much more different for a Div. I player than Toews’.
Just a few years have passed since he first came to America and Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, but much has changed in that time.
Not only did Toews come to the realization he could make his hoop dream possible, then fulfill it, but the game itself has taken off in his native Japan.
“Up until a year ago, basketball was a very minor sport,” he said. “Baseball has always been our main sport. Basketball was never even mentioned, there was no hype around it.”
That changed with the rising star of Rui Hachimura at Gonzaga.
Japanese media chronicled Hachimura’s development into an All-American, then his historic selection as the first Japanese player drafted into the NBA.
“Rui Hachimura doing what he’s done and making the NBA, playing at the highest level, inspired so many,” Toews said. “It’s really brought this weird type of energy to our country.”
“We’re really on the come-up, and to be honest, there’s a lot of talented, young players there now,” he said.
Basketball takes center stage on the Japanese athletic landscape in the coming years, first as one of the high-profile sports in next year’s Olympic Games; then in 2023, when Japan co-hosts the FIBA World Cup.
Toews spent this past summer playing with Japan’s National Team B, an experience both he and McGrath said will bolster his game.
“There’s a lot you can get out of it you just can’t get in summer workouts,” McGrath said. “You don’t have that competition, you’re not playing professionals, [and] you don’t have that pressure of making shots for your country.”
Toews pointed to his play against pros, contributing to his growing repertoire for the coming season. That includes a more confident mid-range game.
But it’s that pressure element McGrath mentioned, wearing the jersey of his home nation, that was most special for Toews.
“Growing up in Japan, and I consider myself Japanese, it’s an honor to be able to put on that uniform. It’s an amazing feeling.”
As he continues his career at UNCW, Toews follows in the path Hachimura traversed from Gonzaga to the Washington Wizards, and Yuta Watanabe followed from George Washington to the Memphis Grizzlies.
He has proven in just a few short years that, not only did he have the game to land a Division I scholarship, but he has the ability to continue basketball’s growth in his home country.