The Japan Times will be featuring periodic interviews with personalities in the bj-league. The league’s fifth season began in October. Head coach David Benoit of the expansion Kyoto Hannaryz is the subject of this week’s profile.
Coach’s background: After wrapping up his collegiate career with two seasons at the University of Alabama, Benoit, played a season in Spain before joining the Utah Jazz as a free agent in 1991 and played in 492 NBA games and 57 playoff contests over eight seasons. He also played in Israel and China and for the Saitama Broncos before becoming the bj-league team’s head coach in 2007.
Team update: The Hannaryz enter Christmas weekend with a 5-13 record (nine losses by single digits), tied with the Tokyo Apache for the league’s worst mark. . . . Injuries have hampered the team’s play as of late. Ex-NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is sidelined with a left calf injury for a month, and center Reda Rhalimi, out of the lineup for an estimated four-to-six weeks with a stress fracture on his left ankle, has gone home to his native Morocco for treatment.
Expansions teams typically have a difficult first season. But did you expect the Hannaryz would be among the league’s worst teams with the season’s midway point just around the corner?
For me, I knew that the building of this team was (a big challenge), but I wanted us to be at least a top-three team in our conference and within the whole league, actually. I won’t say I’m disappointed. I will just use the words ‘kind of disbelief.’ I can’t believe it’s happening almost.
The way we started the preseason, I thought it was good. You’ve got four foreigners (Abdul-Rauf, Josh Bostic, Rhalimi and John Clifford) who have never played in Japan, two draft picks (Kyosuke Setoyama and Taizo Kawabe) who have never played in the bj-league and a couple of the younger Japanese players we have added also. So the start (3-2 in the regular season) was just phenomenal.
How disruptive to the team’s growth has the rash of injuries been?
You could just see them growing together with time, but unfortunately right before the season, right when the preseason ended, we started receiving a lot of injuries. . . .
It’s been a really rocky road, especially when we went on the losing streak (seven straight games), and naturally you always have mistakes that are going to happen during the game.
But when you are not winning, those things get magnified a little bit more than when you are winning. When you are winning, you overcome those situations — the injuries, being a little short-handed.
What have you learned about this team, specifically about its character, since the season started?
I thought the guys who are still out there right now are playing with a whole lot of character, playing hard and playing the way the fans can enjoy watching. And that’s all I can really ask of them right now.
How difficult has it been to compete without Abdul-Rauf and Rhalimi’s presence in the lineup?
Well, you lose those two guys, but even if you have a bad stretch, everyone was still working hard. Of course the mood gets a little sour. But they are still fighting really hard . . . and I am still real proud of them.
Do you believe Kyoto still has a chance to make the playoffs this season?
We’ve still got time to recover, especially if things go well in the New Year. The next 16 games are really important.
What has been the team’s biggest bright spot this season?
Right now, we shoot the ball really well. We’ve got some really good shooters, but I would just like to see us execute a whole lot better offensively and it would help us cut down on turnovers, utilizing one another better offensively.
How would you evaluate the team’s overall defense? (The Hannaryz are allowing 84 points per game, the league’s second-highest total.)
Of course defensively I want us to be a whole lot stronger, especially in our one-on-one defense. But I’m always on that (preaching that point) — defense, defense, defense. . . . The offense really comes when you play great defense.
You briefly talked about the next one-third of the season as being critical for the team. In your mind, how important is this stretch of games?
With the next 16 games, if we can put ourselves to where we can go 10-6 or 11-5, if we can get ourselves in that kind of position — just a little bit better than .500 — than I think toward the end you can kind of see us put together a run, to jell, to peak at that point, after overcoming all the things we’ve faced since the start of the season.
It’s not over with yet. . . . Right now, we are focusing on trying to give ourselves a chance.
Who has been the team’s most underrated player so far this season?
Guard Sunao Murakami. He’s playing behind (Naoto) Takushi and (Jun) Iwasa and of course Mahmoud, but, wow, his improvement since the day he came in has been impressive.
If he keeps up at the pace he’s going right now, he’s going to be someone everyone’s talking about later on.
His attitude reflects his work ethic. That’s what I really love about him. He’s not looking to find anything to complain about.
As a coaching staff, what are you focusing on in helping Murakami elevate his game to the next level?
We’re really trying to focus on helping him develop, defensively and offensively. He’s so quick and fast, I think sometimes he gets ahead of himself.
Abdul-Rauf’s NBA resume speaks for itself, while rookie forward Bostic, the NCAA Division II Player of the Year last season at the University of Findlay, made his mark in a different way. Compare and contrast the leadership skills and the intangibles that Abdul-Rauf and Bostic, bring to the team?
With those two guys, especially Abdul-Rauf, he’s mostly likely to lead by example. And that was one of the real reasons I wanted to have him here. He’s not just going to be talking. He’s going to show it. He’s been influential in helping Murakami move along, too, and practicing against him when Abdul-Rauf was healthy.
Bostic, he’s growing. He’s actually, I think, learning how to be a professional. And he’s also learning his environment, competition and, I think, learning how not to disrespect anyone, because even a guy you may think is average, he may just come and blast you.
That’s just probably some of his cockiness in coming from the (United) States, and that’s natural. But I’m glad he’s learning that. He’s learning to give respect to all his opponents. . .
What impact has captain and point guard Naoto Takushi made on and off the court, coming over from the Ryukyu Golden Kings after the team’s 2008-09 championship season?
Coming away from a championship and being on a championship the year before, you can’t take that away from anyone. But now he’s had to come and deal with a new environment and new teammates.
We are really happy with his decisions. Of course he’s been dealing with some injuries to his ankle, but right now he’s getting really strong and we can see the difference in him.
He’s really keeping the team motivated and that’s all we can really ask of him now.