Asked what brought him over to Japan to take a head coaching job, Donte’ Hill assertively answered with one word: basketball.
Hill, 35, said that he considered Japanese basketball offered a great opportunity to take its game to the next level with the launch of the 12-club NBL for the 2013-14 season.
“This year, we have 10 foreign (head) coaches in this league and so many different styles of basketball that’s being played every game,” Hill said during the recently concluded All-Japan Championship in Tokyo. “So wanting to win a championship brought me here. My goal is to grow basketball, grow the Tsukuba Robots so that Japan can compete in the 2020 Olympics.”
The league’s other nine foreign bench bosses are Donald Beck (Toyota Motors Alvark), Norman deSilva (Kumamoto Volters), Reggie Geary (Chiba Jets), Juan Manuel “Piti” Hurtado (Levanga Hokkaido), Antonio Lang (Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins), Tim Lewis (Hitachi Sunrockers), Zeljko Pavlicevic (Wakayama Trians), Antanas Sireika (Link Tochigi Brex) and Danny Yoshikawa (Hyogo Storks).
The Tsukuba Robots, a professional club without big company funding, have struggled. They have a 6-20 record and sit in fifth place in the NBL’s six-team Western Conference (yes, oddly enough, they are assigned in the west).
Hill stays positive, however. He feels fortunate to be a part of the building process for the young team. He was the head coach for the Daytrick Tsukuba and guided the team to a third-place finish in the JBL2 (now known as the NBDL) in the 2012-13 season, its inaugural campaign in a Japan Basketball Association-run league. Statistically, his club hasn’t been able to duplicate that success in the top-tier NBL so far, which he somewhat expected.
“We were the top defensive team in the league and that was how we were able to get success (last year),” said Hill, a former assistant for the Jacksonville Giants of the ABA. “This year, size makes us foul a lot more than we’d like because other teams are bigger than us, so we foul more, they shoot more free throws. We have to double team in the post a lot and it puts us in tough situations. That’s the adjustment we always have to work through.”
Tsukuba, which has only one player taller than 200 cm, is one of the shortest teams (187.4 cm average) in the NBL.
But Hill, who had previously worked as a leadership consultant at a U.S. firm, keeps his head up. He insisted that the Ibaraki Prefecture-based club has still experienced “success” so far.
“As a coach, as a leader of this organization (and) of this team, it’s important I stay positive, and I’m making sure my guys are positive,” the American said. “We have to celebrate every step of the way, and so every quarter, every possession is valuable.”
More balanced, not deeper: The Toyota Motors Alvark are recognized as one of the deepest teams in the league. For example, American Jeff Gibbs is the only Alvark player averaging more than 25 minutes per game (25.8) on the squad this year.
But Alvark head coach Donald Beck disagreed.
Beck said that Toyota has the same roster that every team in the upper level, such as the Aisin SeaHorses and Toshiba Brave Thunders, possesses.
“We don’t have a deeper roster than Aisin,” he said. “We have a deeper team than Tsukuba, Kumamoto, those newer teams.
“Last year’s team was definitely deeper. But this year, I would say we are kind of all equal.”
Beck, however, nodded that his team may be as balanced as any other team.
“We have a good balance,” he said. “The players that start, they don’t start because they are better than the players that sit. We are very, very balanced. I could easily start the guys on the bench.”
Next big thing: Tokai University senior Daiki Tanaka played his final collegiate game at the All-Japan Championship, which ended on Monday.
The 22-year-old guard/forward, who’s scheduled to begin playing for Toyota Motors next month in the league’s early entry system, said after a loss in the quarterfinal of the single-elimination tourney that he had no regrets as he concluded his collegiate career.
“Of course it’s disappointing to leave as a loser,” Tanaka said. “But I don’t think I was outperformed individually.”
Tanaka, who’s already been a member of the Japan national team for the past few years, is expected to make an immediate impact in the NBL.
“I’ll be given new circumstances,” he said. “So that’ll be my next challenge. I’d like to put up what I’ve done at Tokai in the last four years.”