The Japan Times periodically features interviews with personalities in the bj-league. Coach Zoran Kreckovic of the Osaka Evessa is the subject of this week’s profile.
Coaching background: Kreckovic served as head coach for IMT Beopetrol in Serbia from 1997-2000, with a stint at Crvena Zvezda Beograd in 2001-02 before moving on to Yamolgaz ’92 Yambol in the Bulgarian League from 2002-03. He coached the Kuwait national team from 2004-06 and in 2008-09, including appearances in the FIBA Asia Championship in Doha in 2005 and the Asia Championship in Tianjin, China, in 2009. He guided Al Sadd in the Qatari League last season. In his playing days, Kreckovic was a shooting guard, but he says he prefers the term “scoring guard.”
With a major roster overhaul — only three of 12 players on the current roster played for the Evessa last season — how big of a challenge is it to develop unity and familiarity for the season?
We have a lot of new players and even some players like (Takuya) Hashimoto and (Shun) Watanuki they are the freshmen for the team. I have had enough time to see them and think they are very talented players like Hashimoto, but they have to learn many things.
All the players are facing one big problem: Our big guys came one or two days before the tournament (Seiki Cup, Sept. 15-17), so we didn’t have time to set up our offense and defense.
(Reporter’s note: In losing the three tournament games by a combined 60 points, Osaka was without the services of shooting guard Masashi Obuchi and point guard Temi Soyebo, which forced Kreckovic to used off-guard Shota Konno at the point. The coach said Konno had never played that position before.)
What’s the primary focus between now and the start of the regular season against the Takamatsu Five Arrows on Oct. 13?
Now we are just working on building a team — how we can play, what plays (to use) and clear up every confusion. Now we start to do that. We need three weeks of basketball to prepare for the season.
The Evessa’s three championships and six Final Four appearances are historic achievements in this league. Do you have high expectations for the team this season?
Yes. The Evessa have won championships, fallen down and have to come back. We have to fight for the championship.
Hashimoto is 17 years old, and won’t turn 18 until December. So how big will his transition be going from high school ball to the pro level?
Everybody here is stronger and faster and has more experience. Now it is very difficult (for him). But he has talent and he likes to work and I have to work with him extra time to teach him some proper techniques. I think he has solid techniques, but he is using it in the wrong way.
Is Hashimoto ready to play on a regular basis? And what are his top skills?
Right now he’s in great shape, he’s attacking the basket and he can be a very good scorer and a very good outside player, but right now … coming to the bj-league where guys are stronger and faster than you and they have several seasons (of pro experience), he cannot do everything he did in high school. He needs time to understand what he can do and how to create his offense.
Describe your coaching style. What are your basic principles for offense and defense?
Our basic system is man-to-man defense … but sometimes you have to help the player. We will try to play some other defenses. When something is not going good, we will play some zone. Running, we can also play full-court press. It depends on the situation.
On offense, you have to punish and react when the defense makes a mistake.
Reflecting on your experiences coaching in Qatar and Kuwait, a big difference from the culture in your homeland, what did you gain from those years to help you as coach?
There’s lots of things to change in a short time. … You have to try some new things because they are not so good in basketball. Find the way to play against good teams, and you can do that.
In Kuwait, you have to understand about the level (of play), no foreign players, very small population and very rich people, so they don’t need to practice to get money. So they are not very much interested in sport. But for me, I spent a very nice time there.
In a 21-team league, all new to you, how important will scouting be for you in order to make in-game adjustments and adjustments from the opener to a second game in a series?
This is extremely important that you have a strategy for every game. We are working on some basic things in this preparation period, but we will prepare for every game for the next game. …
You have to recognize how you will play and what you can change a little bit and what the players will accept to be successful in the coming game.
Are you a players’ coach, more of a friend than a boss, or do you consider yourself more of an old-school disciplinarian, tough and demanding?
I’m very honest with my players and they have to believe in me. Everyone who is practicing well will play in the game.
I don’t have buddies in the team, never in my life. In that way, I am very straight. You have to deserve to be on the court. I have to believe you and push you on the court.
I am the coach, they are the players. I respect them and teach them. Every day we are building our relationship. …
If I have (seen) the best player and he’s not doing well, I will speak with him in front of all the players. I am depending on the best player who is not playing well. I am not depending on the player who is 11th or 12th on the bench (to be the tone-setter). So, if he does that — lackadaisical play — in practice, I will stop practice immediately.
In your view, why is it important to single out the top players this way?
Because, when the game comes, I think I will not have a problem. If I am waiting for the game to come, I will not solve the problem.
Which players are you counting on to be team leaders?
Every championship team needs a leader. If you haven’t got a leader on your team, you can’t be a champion.
I cannot push someone for the leadership if he’s not almost close to that position. I can support that and recognize that guy. … We will see very soon who will get that position.
We have to face this problem in the next period over the next three weeks. We have to get to know exactly who is our leader. I think this is also one good easy way to start: one foreign leader and one Japanese leader. The most important thing is the group has to accept that and give him support, and after that it’s easy.
Taking a look at Osaka’s new foreign players — point guard Temi Soyebo (North Carolina-Wilmington), forward Nathaniel Walkup (Texas A&M), center Larry Cox (Mississippi Valley State) and forward Andre Coimbra (Central Michigan) — what are their main traits as players?
Soyebo is an experienced player. … He can shoot, dribble, make assists and understands basketball. I think he will be an important player for us, good shooting, 3-point shots and can organize the offense for us.
Walker is a scorer and he showed that in this tournament, scoring almost 20 points per game. He can play the 3 or the 4 depending on the situation and strategy.
Cox is a big guy playing under the basket. (Right now) he’s a little unprepared so I’m just working to put him in shape. If you are not in shape, you cannot speak about basketball; you have to be ready to learn to move. … I think he will be good for us under the basket..
Coimbra is physically a very strong guy and can play the 4 and 5. (After arriving in Japan just before the Seiki Cup), he was not showing too much in the first two games, but against Hamamatsu he was playing much better.
As a coach, you have to put a player in a place where he will give his best on the court, and in the next three weeks he will do that and get much better. Defensively, he’s a very strong guy and can play anybody from 1 to 5, a big, big advantage for any team. Coaches are always searching for this (versatility) and these players are very expensive.
Which current or former coaches do you admire? Why?
(Former University of Arizona coach) Lute Olson, and I’ve always liked Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
I’m following more college basketball than the NBA. I watch the NBA only when it’s coming to the playoffs. … For the playoffs you can watch good basketball. I was watching the game from the last Final Four between Kentucky and Louisville and I like both coaches, John Calipari and Rick Pitino.
As you can see, I always speak about college coaches. I prefer them more than NBA coaches; maybe because it’s more similar to European basketball.
(Reporter’s note: Kreckovic spoke with admiration about a number of Serbian coaches who’ve had great success in Europe, garnering top honors and capturing numerous Euroleague titles. He, of course, mentioned Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach Aleksandar Nikolic, widely known as “The Father of Yugoslav Basketball,” for his great influence in the former Yugoslavia. Nikolic passed away in 2000, two years after he was named one of the top greatest Euroleague contributors. In 1997, he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. “He was the greatest teacher for basketball in our country.”)
How do you enjoy spending your leisure time?
In Japan, I don’t have too much time, but watching some basketball or movies. (At home in Serbia), I like hi-fi (high fidelity), a very good amplifier system. I miss it a lot, relaxing and listening to jazz and bossa nova.
(Often, he said with a chuckle, he’ll turn down the volume on the TV while watching a game and listen to music at the same time.)