Six games into their second season, the Ryukyu Golden Kings are one of the biggest success stories in the bj-league.
First-year head coach Dai Oketani, a former Oita HeatDevils coach, has done a strong job turning the team around after a 10-34 season as an expansion club. Oketani replaced Hernando Planells after the 2007-08 season.
Ryukyu (6-0) puts its new reputation as a playoff contender on the line on Saturday when it takes on the Takamatsu Five Arrows (5-1) in the first of a two-game set in Shikoku.
“The team has started out as just that, as a team,” Golden Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson said. “We are pleased with how the guys have played as a unit thus far. They are passing the ball very well, which opens up lanes for us to attack and also opens up the middle for our post game for (Jeff) Newton, (Chris) Ayer and (Bryan) Simpson.”
Newcomers Newton and Anthony McHenry are the league’s fourth- and sixth-leading scorers, respectively, at 23.0 and 21.2 points per game.
The Golden Kings have been able to utilize their versatility on offense, as evidenced by their 90-plus points in five of six games to date. (They scored 86 in their most recent game, a 22-point win over Oita on Nov. 2.)
Simpson, a former U.S. Air Force serviceman at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, has made steady improvement as a second-year member of the squad. He’s averaging 12.2 ppg.
Ayer, a Loyola Marymount University product who played under Oketani for Oita, is an 11.3-ppg performer after six games with four straight double-digit games in the books.
Richardson credits guards McHenry, Naoto Takushi, Shigeyuki Kinjo and Kenya Tomori for making the offense work efficiently. Kinjo, who scored 22 points in the season opener, is a 14.3-ppg performer and the leading Japanese scorer on the team.
“In my eyes, (they) have really stepped up in getting the ball inside to our bigs and have hit the outside shots when needed to get teams out on the perimeter to guard our shooters,” Richardson said. “I feel like other teams have to respect our outside shooting ability this season, which gives us many more options offensively.”
Backup forwards Yosuke Sugawara, Yoshiki Yamashiro and Taketo Aoki have done a solid job coming off the bench, playing what Richardson called “big minutes for us, which is very vital to the development of our reserves.”
The Golden Kings enter the series against the Five Arrows with several impressive statistics, including five players with double-digit scoring averages, 58.5 shooting on 2-point attempts and 41 blocked shots.
The coaching staff, however, is challenging the players to make improvements.
“One thing I think we have to work on is not becoming complacent and just settling for what the defense gives us and try to force up or take bad shots,” said Richardson. “At times we are not patient enough with our offense and we settle for bad shots or turn the ball over with excessive dribbling. I think that is something you will see change as the season progresses.”
Another positive development for Ryukyu is the emergence of Tomori, the captain, as a visible leader on and off the court. “He helps keep the team focused and is very vocal at his position as the team captain, which as everyone knows is very vital to the success of any team in any level of sports, especially professional basketball,” Richardson noted.
Richardson worked as a team adviser last season, getting a firsthand look at the team that was built from scratch. Now, he has seen the way Oketani has molded the team into his preferred style of basketball.
“Coach Dai is the heart of the team,” said Richardson, who arrived in Okinawa as a U.S. Marine in 1984 and has lived on the island since then except for one year. “We all function around him as one. His knowledge of basketball is just phenomenal. He is always thinking ahead of the other teams and makes adjustments to the game very fast.”
Richardson’s basketball roots began in Snow Camp, N.C., his hometown, which is near the University of North Carolina (where Michael Jordan and other legends played college ball). He calls himself “a Tar Heel at heart,” but also supports Georgia Tech, where he received a logistics professional certification.
As a player, Richardson competed at the varsity level in the military and on a Japanese club team in Okinawa.
As a coach, Richardson established a club team, the Okinawa Suns, in 2003 which since then included ex-Division I players Reggie Minton of the Air Force Academy and Kendric Green of Florida A&M, among others, after they joined the military after college. The team finished second in the Japan Military Athletic Conference in 2006-07.
Richardson, 43, also tasted success at the high school level, helping guide Kubasaki High School, a Department of Defense school, to the U.S. military’s Far East championship in 2006-07 in Seoul.
In other words, his basketball background has added valuable experience and discipline to the 30-year-old Oketani’s staff. Together, the coaches have developed a solid rapport and guided the Golden Kings to a sensational start this season.