YOKOHAMA – Veteran forward Taketo Aoki, a player in the bj-league since the beginning in 2005, called his boss, Yokohama B-Corsairs head coach Reggie Geary, “a great coach” during a post-practice conversation on Tuesday.
Yokohama captain Masayuki Kabaya said that Geary is quite adept at “making in-game adjustments.”
Both players echoed a general sentiment shared by many around the 21-team circuit: Geary is a rising star in the coaching profession.
Entering the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, the B-Corsairs’ 32-16 record is indicative of Geary’s ability to push the right buttons for the second-year franchise, which has eclipsed its win total (31) from last season.
Yet perhaps the most significant coaching move Geary made this season was finding the right way to maximize the talent on his roster. The former NBA guard built his team’s offense around the complementary skills of Nos. 1, 2 and 3, Thomas Kennedy, Draelon Burns and Masayuki Kabaya. (Coincidentally, their jersey numbers form a nice, neat way to remember who they are and what they do for the club.)
They are Yokohama’s Big Three, particularly on offense, averaging a combined 51.8 of the team’s 81.3 points per game. Burns, a DePaul University product who helped elevate the team to a title contender after arriving mid-season in 2012, is the top scorer at 20.8 ppg (fifth overall in the league.
Burns, who was selected to the Eastern Conference’s All-Star squad in January, is one of the elite game-changing athletes in the league. And the fact that he’s a legitimate MVP candidate — fifth-best total in assists (5.0 per game) and tied for second in steals (2.1) — despite coming off the bench speaks volumes about his willingness to accept any role for the greater good of the team.
“He has definitely been having an MVP-type season,” Geary said in a recent interview. “I just wish obviously we could’ve avoided the (leg) injury (in February), and I really think he could’ve put a stamp on that award this season.”
Burns missed five games, starting on Feb. 24, and struggled to play at full strength for a few weeks after his March return.
“But for the simple fact that he’s in this conversation and that he comes off our bench just kind of speaks to the kind of person that he is,” Geary said. “He is a team-first guy. He’s not screaming up and down (Hey), ‘I need to start.’ Or, ‘I need to be truly a team guy.’
“He understands that he might not start the games but he’s sure out there at the finish. He’s very important to us and we’re very happy with the job that he does for us. And he’s a good teammate, so that’s great.”
Big man Shawn Malloy, a key acquisition in December, believes Burns is a driving force behind the team’s success.
“With Drae being one of our main playmakers, he does a lot for our team. He gets a lot of the guys open . . . we get our shots just because of the effectiveness of Drae, the way he plays his game,” Malloy told Hoop Scoop. “He’s able to drive (and dish).”
That drive-and-dish ability forces opponents to concentrate on Burns at all times.
“It’s a pick-or-choose (situation),” Malloy told me. “If you leave him open, he’s going to knock down the shot, or if you close out on him too close, he’s able to drive, and when he sucks the defense in, that leaves open shots for other guys.”
Burns is the team leader in 3-pointers made (104), but he thrives sharing court time with Kennedy and Kabaya, who have knocked down 77 and 99 3-pointers, respectively. So, to recap, the math shows this: The Big Three have drained 280 of the team’s 393 3-pointers to date.
Here’s Burns’ general view of the way the Big Three have ignited the team: “Our three’s job is to come out and spark our team any way possible and, coincidentally, this year it’s scoring, so I guess that’s what we come out and do — we look for each other — we believe in each other and it’s just fun playing with the guys.”
More specifically, Burns said, “Kaba’s a great captain. Thomas is a great shooter and we look for him to shoot . . . and I just try to fill in where I can fill in. . . .
“Coach is great, he puts us in the right positions, and we just try to be the best professionals we can be.”
The 30-year-old Kabaya, who hails from Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, suited up for the JBL’s Mitsubishi squad from 2005-07 and 2009-11. In between, he had a two-season stint with the Toyama Grouses, giving bj-league fans a long look at his dynamic abilities as an offensive contributor and backcourt leader. This season, Kabaya is sixth in the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (42.1 percent), with a high-arcing shot and a quick, smooth release that younger players would be wise to emulate.
Malloy is impressed with the impact his captain has made.
“He’s been phenomenal. He has a nice basketball IQ and it was kind of disappointing to not see him be a part of the bj-league All-Star Game this year because I think he definitely deserved it,” Malloy said of Kabaya.
Listen to Malloy’s description of why Kabaya is such a valuable player:
“You can’t leave him open because he’ll knock it down.”
Said Geary: “Kabaya is one of the best pure shooters in the league — hands down. On top of that, he’s one of the best scorers in the league.
“A lot of good shooters can’t create space for themselves or shoot of the dribble, but Kaba is good from all areas. He’s an excellent 3-point and mid-range shooter, and really has worked hard over the last two seasons to be more of an aggressive driver to the rim. His shot making and play-making ability have played an even bigger role in our team’s success this season.”
Watching Kabaya play, one gets the sense that he approaches his job with a lot of confidence in his abilities. One also notices that he relishes the chance to set his teammates up for shots. In fact, his passing skills are underrated, and his 140 assists and 60 turnovers point to a keen understanding of the game.
But without teammates that work in impromptu or scripted unity with Kabaya, his leadership skills wouldn’t shine quite as brightly.
Credit Kennedy for stepping into the spotlight this season and fitting in nicely with his new team. The lithe, long-limbed forward was a standout for the Iwate Big Bulls last season (18.0 ppg). With Yokohama, he hasn’t skipped a beat, rising to the challenge to be a go-to scorer a season after the B-Corsairs relied on the all-around brilliance of 2011-12 MVP Justin Burrell, who’s playing in France this season.
“T.K, he’s very competitive,” said Malloy, who also played for Iwate last season. “. . .If he comes out and he misses a shot, or he gets his shot blocked, the next time down it’s definitely going to be a bucket. He’s that determined to score and win. He feels as if nothing can stop him, and we have that desire to win.”
Dunks, putbacks and jumpers are all key components of Kennedy’s offensive arsenal, which includes 51.7 percent shooting from inside the arc. Getting to the free-throw line with regularity is another good trait. He’s 163-for-206 (79.1 percent), and is second on the team in rebounds (333).
After reaching the Final Four last season as an expansion squad, there were high expectation for Yokohama in 2012-13. But MVP Burrell did not return. Nor did 215-cm center Chas McFarland or defensive-minded guard Marcus Simmons.
So there were natural questions about the ease with which Yokohama would rebuild its roster for this season.
Geary and the B-Corsairs front office recognized the skills of Kabaya and Burns meshed well together and concocted the team’s second-season roster around them, plus players that work well with them, including Kennedy and emerging talent Faye Pape Mour, a Senegalese big man.
“Just from being around Draelon the second half of last season, I realized that he was a multi-dimension talent who can make plays for himself and others, is a good shooter from the 3-point line, and can also post up,” Geary said. “This versatility made him a great piece to begin with in building a roster for this season’s club. For the fact he was a hard worker, a good guy and coachable was all the more reason to bring him back.”
With Burns back, Yokohama had a jump-start to success that many teams, without a proven floor leader in this league, did not have.
But Geary knows he’s fortunate to have Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teaming up to help the team have a solid shot at capturing the title this season.
“They obviously are important, regardless of the combination of the three, they are important. Our three are probably the smallest three in the league,” Geary said.
“They are skill guys, they all have the ability to step out and shoot 3s. And I think we maybe have the most explosive combination of three guys where they can (really put points on the board).
We’ve seen nights where they’ve given us 70, 75 points, so I think just the explosiveness of the three in terms of scoring makes them unique and obviously the fact that they are the smallest combination of the Big Three, if you want to say, for guys here.”
There’s been nothing small about the contributions of Yokohama’s Big Three this season.