LAS VEGAS -- With two minutes left, the crowd of a lazy, mid-afternoon Las Vegas Summer League blowout was louder than it had been all game. The Mavericks led the Raptors by 30, and as a result, the crowd was dead. But a quiet murmur that started when Yuki Togashi waited by the scorer's table turned into delighted cheers as he checked in.
In that moment, everyone in the arena was on the same side. We were all Yuki Togashi fans.
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It's impossible to dislike the 5'7 Japanese point guard. He's shorter than some of the ball boys and too young to join his teammates playing blackjack at a grimy, neon-lit casino on the Strip (he turns 21 at the end of the month). He looks much too small to be playing basketball, but yet here he is, bringing the ball up the court.
Shouts and cheers from the crowd linger, renewing in earnest whenever Togashi has the ball. With 1:24 left, he comes over a screen and launches a three-pointer. The crowd inhales as it travels through the air and groans as it clangs off the rim. The next possession, the referee calls Togashi for shuffling his feet and a few of the more boisterous fans boo.
Togashi takes his last shot with 45 seconds remaining. His defender cheated off of him, and suddenly the crowd realizes he was open -- possibly even before Togashi himself did. In unison, all of COX Pavilion gave him a very audible command: "SHOOT IT." He obliged, and never had we been more sure a shot was going in.
But it missed, and even though most of us didn't even know who Togashi was a minute ago, we all let out a disappointed exhale.
Of all the places for Yuki Togashi's basketball story to start, it's at Kevin Durant's high school alma mater, Montrose Christian. He played for their varsity basketball team and graduated in three years, but returned to Japan after failing to receive any Division I scholarship offers.
In 2013, he joined the Akita Northern Happinets. Ed Odeven of the Japanese Times wrote this about his success:
Togashi was the All-Star Game MVP on Jan. 26 in Akita, finishing with 23 points and five assists for the victorious Eastern Conference. The 20-year-old led the bj-league with 7.9 assists and averaged 15.6 points per game during the 2013-14 season. He was named to the Best Five Team, becoming the youngest player in league history to earn the honor.
Mavericks scout Luca Desta originally thought it was a joke when a mutual friend told him he should look at Yuki, but his opinion changed after watching film.
"This is Summer League," Desta told SB Nation. "Everyone gets a chance to showcase their talent."
Even with a Summer League training camp invite, Togashi still wasn't certain he would make the final cut against Chris Smith (J.R.'s little brother.)
"I didn't have that much confidence," Togashi said. "The other point guard was very good."
Very few NBA players have ever overcome a height disparity like Togashi's -- Nate Robinson is the shortest player in the NBA at 5'9. But as Mavericks Summer League head coach Kaleb Canales said, he earned his way onto the roster over Smith with his play in training camp.
"I don't look at barriers," Canales said. "I just look at his strengths."
Togashi compensates for his size with speed and smart play, and he compares his game to Chris Paul.
"He's 5'6, but he's tough, man," said Roberto Nelson, a guard on the Hornets roster who was matched up against him. "He pressures you and moves quick off the ball screens. He's able to make double moves and stuff like that."
Watching highlights of him playing basketball with musical cuts of Janet Jackson and Sting in the background makes him even more likeable. As shown in the video, he makes use of his floater in the lane and can find the open player -- especially in transition.
Still, Desta acknowledged a player Togashi's size will always have to play well enough on offense to make up for a lack of defense. Until Wednesday, Togashi hadn't even shown the ability to make shots in Summer League. The Dallas Morning News reported last month that he was probably bound for the Mavericks' D-League affiliate.
At his height, he will probably never make the NBA. But he's already made it incredibly far given his physical shortcomings.
The small but persistent group of Yuki Togashi loyalists clustered together around mid-court in the neighboring Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, chanting "Toga, Toga, Toga" -- both a shortening of his last name and a possible homage to "Animal House."
Unlike the game two days prior, these Togashi fans would not leave the gym disappointed. Togashi hit a three-pointer moments after subbing in and another shortly after. A little later, he found some room driving down the lane and launched a floater over the defense that bounced around the rim before falling in.
Desta said he couldn't help but fist pump while watching. For Togashi, finally scoring his first points in the Summer League was a huge confidence boost. He would finish the game with 12 points and plenty of buzz around the Internet.
The "Toga"-chanting group continued throughout the game, and at various points of the game were joined by fans on the other side of the arena, joining in with their own chants of "YUKI! YUKI! YUKI!"
No matter where basketball takes Yuki Togashi, he'll always have fans. And he'll always have this moment where the crowd was chanting his name during a competitive game against other NBA players.