You already know that Japanese basketball’s significance on a global scale is minor in comparison to most nations. And yes, most of this nation’s residents can tell you that Yuta Tabuse was a trailblazer for Japanese basketball by becoming the first Japanese to play in the NBA.
But that’s likely where the conversation will end.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that power forward/center Jeremy Tyler, who played for the Tokyo Apache last season, has a chance to be a first-round pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday.
A growing number of hoop pundits have projected him as a late first-round selection; some have predicted he’ll be taken higher based on strong individual workouts and interviews with teams. Which makes him, in a unique way, an important figure in Japanese hoops.
In addition to his impressive physique (208-cm, 118-kg frame) and 226-cm wingspan, Tyler has come across as articulate, mature, humble, forthcoming, honest and likable in his interviews, which could enhance his chances of becoming drafted or landing a spot on an NBA team.
Good for him.
Tyler, who’ll celebrate his 20th birthday on Tuesday, has grown up in a hurry, as necessitated by the past two years, when he’s lived in Israel (a rocky 10-game stint in a Maccabi Haifa uniform in 2009-10) and in Japan.
Considering the unlikely path he’s taken to reach that point, Tyler’s career will always be remembered for his short, but invaluable stint in the bj-league: 33 games, 15.4 minutes per game, 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and one start. That start was on March 10 (24 points, 11 rebounds in 23 minutes), the Apache’s final game of the season against the Akita Northern Happinets, as they called off the remainder of their season after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
While the Apache season abruptly ended, Tyler, who skipped his senior year at San Diego High School in order to turn pro, returned to work, spending time in Texas with Bob Hill, his Apache coach, in preparation for the draft. It was similar to the rigorous weeks of preparation before a college student’s final exam.
Tyler, however, was schooled in how to handle the pressure of individual team workouts (he had 13 of them scheduled before Thursday’s draft) and how to present himself to the media, being told his conduct off the court would be scrutinized as much as what he did in one-on-one and group drills.
“Jeremy is like so very many young players being drafted into the NBA today, he has a big upside,” Hill wrote in a recent email from Taiwan, where as a technical consultant he was helping prepare the Taiwan men’s national team for the FIBA East Asia Championship. “He can become very special as time moves forward and he continues to improve and learn about being a player in the NBA.
“I believe a lot depends on who drafts him and how committed their staff is to him. Today with so many teams it’s vital to have assistant coaches who can really teach their younger players and develop them So I guess we will see on the 23rd.”
Tyler is confident he has put himself in position to be drafted.
“Being overseas has definitely been an advantage,” Tyler told The Associated Press. “I see it. I feel it. I know it. I mean there’s a lot of good guys in this draft and a lot of good guys (have) been with all these teams. I am not going to knock their game. They are all good, but I feel like I view basketball in another way where I’ll be successful in the NBA.”
* * *
In a May interview with Hoop Scoop, NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake said he believes Tyler will be a second-round pick or a non-drafted player. But he thinks the NBA Development League is an ideal option for Tyler as he makes his next big transition.
“When you can see someone and you’re investing millions of dollars, it’s a very difficult decision, especially when you’re job is on the line,” Blake said from his office in Woodstock, Georgia.
In other words, are NBA executives willing to roll the dice and pick a youthful player who suited up in the bj-league?
But Blake stops short of saying Tyler can’t succeed in the NBA.
“We are all hoping for the best for him, but it may be a long rout for him,” Blake said. “Going through what he has done, hopefully he can take it as a positive and show people he has a lot of ability. . . . He has a long road ahead of him.”
The biggest question is this: “Does he have an NBA skill set?” Blake asked.
That doesn’t mean Tyler has to have a complete all-around game at age 20, though. He has time to grow into a well-rounded player.
Blake noted that Tyler is “still learning the game,” but already learned a lot by working with Hill. “Having a good coach always helps,” he added, “but nothing can beat good experience.”
Expanding on his belief that Tyler will not be a first-rounder, Blake said, “I don’t think someone is going to give him guaranteed money,” which is only written into the contracts of guys taken in the opening round. If the D-League is his next home, Tyler will play in the most scouted professional league in the world, but that would be the ideal place to grow, Blake said.
Each player develops at his own pace. So there’s time for Tyler to make his mark in the coming years.
“There’s many cases of guys that don’t make the NBA right away,” Blake said during our phone conversation, citing Miami Heat big man Joel Anthony and Chicago Bulls guard C.J. Watson as recent examples of this.
Many analysts, meanwhile, believe Tyler’s time in Japan was an experience that prepared him well for the next phase of his career.
New Jersey Nets general manager Billy King expressed his views on the matter, echoing the comments of many NBA sources I’ve read in recent months.
“He played for a pro coach over there in Bob Hill,” King told the Newark (New Jersey) Star-Ledger. “Bob knows the game, been around the game. So if you’re going to do it, do it in that environment so you’ve got somebody who really understands and can prepare you for this level.”
During his recent workout in Oregon, Tyler impressed Portland Trail Blazers interim GM Chad Buchanan.
“Jeremy has some physical tools that are going to translate to our level,” Buchanan was quoted as saying in The Oregonian. “He’s physical, he’s athletic. He’s not afraid to lean on guys. He’s going to hit you. He can spin in the post pretty quick for a guy his size.”
* * *
Instead of juggling an academic workload and time on a major college powerhouse team — he would’ve been a University of Louisville freshman player under Rick Pitino last season if he stuck to his original plan — Tyler received constant advice, discipline and analysis from Hill, whom he told reporters at the Nets workout is a “great role model, father-figure coach,” repeating words he used in our conversations after Apache games.
“He was a major part of my success on the team,” Tyler told reporters at the Nets workout “His knowledge was a blessing. To be able to converse with him every day, I learned a lot. It was a good experience . . .”
On March 10, Tyler gave his last lengthy interview in Japan. During the sit-down session, he summed up his time as a pupil in the Bob Hill School of Hard Knocks this way:
“Coach is someone that’s very special in my life for the last eight months that I’ve known him. I view him as a father (figure), coach, mentor (and) trainer and everything that you can possibly be, a teacher at most. He always stands up for us.”
So instead of being glowingly praised by college boosters and buddies as he walked around campus, Tyler was told his game — raw but powerful — needed work and how he needed to go about doing it. He was told what he needed to hear, especially from Hill, whose time leading the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics gave him credibility and encyclopedic knowledge to pass along to his enthusiastic pupil.
A number of bloggers and self-proclaimed experts have taken shots at Tyler (translation: jealousy), attempting to portray him as a villain, a fool, a sorry excuse for a human being because of his unconventional path, putting himself in position to be in the NBA.
To his credit, Tyler hasn’t let the critics destroy his dream, his confidence and his focus.
And that’s a victory in itself.