Nobody realistically expected the Bambitious Nara to win 35 or 40 games in their inaugural season. After all, an expansion team must endure a lot of growing pains as a first-year franchise during a challenging 52-game schedule.
And so it was not a stunning development that coach Koto Toyama’s squad dropped its first six games and stumbled out of the gates with a 1-9 record.
Growth takes time. Developing chemistry doesn’t happen overnight.
Quietly over the course of Nara’s final 42 games, the team made significant improvements. The Bambitious went 18-24 in that long stretch and never lost more than three in a row the rest of the season, which ended on a high note, a 75-71 home victory over Hamamatsu. During their final 10 games, the Bambitious pieced together a four-game win streak and came out on top in six of those contests.
Veteran guard Joe Chapman, Nara’s leading scorer (16.2 points per game), has positive expectations for the franchise as it plots its course for the second season and beyond.
“I think the future is very bright for this organization,” Chapman told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “We have been a playoff team since January and coach has played a big part of turning things around. He allowed his young players to grow on the fly and not criticize every wrong thing they did.”
Chapman, 29, was one of three Bambitious players to appear in all 52 games along with rookie guard Tatsuya Suzuki and forward Jumpei Honda. He also embraced the leadership role that was a vital part of his daily duties this season. He said that Toyama “also allowed the veterans, myself and Adrian Moss, to have a voice and lead from all aspects from scouting to running the offense and defense, respectively.”
Maintaining a positive attitude was a key element of Nara’s much-improved play. Chapman admitted not getting discouraged after the aforementioned 1-9 start and eight losses in the team’s first 10 road games was a challenge.
“It would have been easy for everyone to get discouraged, especially having seven players under 25 on the team,” said the Marquette University product, a former college teammate of Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade. “(The veterans and coach) just reminded them, ‘let’s just get better each month and see where we stand once January comes around.’ ”
Resilience developed into one of Nara’s key characteristics.
“We lost a lot of games, but every month we were getting better and better,” Chapman said. “Our core group of young players was starting to become a lot more confident and all four Americans, including myself, were just getting accustomed to the back-to-backs and everyday grind of the bj-league, so our key was staying positive and think about the journey and not the setbacks.”
Toyama, who led Ryukyu to a league-record 42-10 record last season but was axed after not taking the franchise to the Final Four, preached preparation, getting his charges in the regular habit of learning everything possible about their opponents.
Or as Chapman described it: “We watched so much film of each team that it made it easier to play them again when the schedule came around. Our preparation and practice allowed us not to lose more than three in a row since January.”
The Bambitious picked up at least one win against eight of its nine West foes. The lone exception? Powerhouse Ryukyu, which went 4-0 against its ex-coach.
Suzuki emerged as top Rookie of the Year contender, averaging 8.7 points and 5.6 assists (third-highest total; 289 assists, 130 turnovers) in the league with 81 steals. Anthony Brown contributed 15.1 points per game and raked in 371 rebounds, and frontcourt mate Moss averaged 9.5 ppg and pulled down a team-best 442 rebounds. Jamar Abrams, Taishi Kasahara and Honda chipped in with 9.3, 6.3 and 6.0 ppg, respectively.
Indeed, players’ roles were clearly defined and the team’s confidence level rose steadily under Toyama’s capable leadership.
“When we closed the season with a win last weekend, it was a great feeling,” said Chapman. “It showed just how much we have grown since our first game against Osaka (in October). We fought all game and were determined to win for all of our fans who came to support us from Nara. As we got better, the fans improved the attendance and got behind us as a group.”
Now, with chapter one in Bambitious history written, the team has some key lessons to draw upon as it strives for a winning season in 2014-15.
“The key to be successful is, again, don’t forgot about the end journey,” Chapman said. “Every year is a process, but now the younger players are hungry and confident going into (another) year and add a few more pieces and, for sure, this franchise can be a playoff-caliber team for years and years.
“I want to thank all the people who supported myself and my family this year in Nara,” he added without hesitation. “It was a pleasure to help this new franchise create history.”
Weekly accolade: Shimane guard Edward Yamamoto, a fixture on the team since its inaugural 2010-11 season, was named the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, the league announced Tuesday.
Yamamoto had 15 points and eight assists in an 89-83 win over Shiga last Saturday. A day later, he contributed 11 points, seven assists and three steals in a 74-71 triumph.
The Susanoo Magic (11-39) have won three straight and four of their last five games entering the final weekend of the season.
Upcoming games: The following 10 series are on the docket this weekend: Aomori vs. Kyoto, Sendai vs. Iwate, Toyama vs. Tokyo, Saitama vs. Niigata, Yokohama vs. Akita, Shiga vs. Fukuoka, Shimane vs. Osaka, Oita vs. Takamatsu, Hamamatsu vs. Ryukyu and Shinshu vs. Gunma.
Miscellany: Former Tokyo Apache assistant coach Casey Hill has led the Santa Cruz Warriors to the NBA Development League Finals. His father, Bob Hill, former Apache bench boss, will visit Santa Cruz, California, to attend Game 1 of the best-of-three series against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
The elder Hill has kept busy in recent days in Los Angeles getting players ready for June’s NBA Draft.
“I’m really proud of him,” Bob Hill said of his son, who was a Santa Cruz assistant last season when the Warriors were the title runnerup squad, in an email to The Japan Times.
The D-League Finals shifts to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Game 2 on Saturday and, if necessary, Game 3 on Monday.
Santa Cruz, which went 29-21 in the regular season, is the West’s sixth seed, and Fort Wayne is the East’s top seed.
The teams met once in the regular season, with the Mad Ants posting a victory.
Kiyotaka Ito has been named the Rizing Fukuoka’s managing director. His appointment to the position became official on Tuesday, according to a league-issued news release.
The 50-year-old Ito is an Aichi Prefecture native. He joined the Rizing in 2012 as a team owner. Now he adds an additional title to his leadership responsibilities.
Rizing president Go Takenaka was arrested in Tokyo on suspicion of embezzling ¥380 million along with three other current employees of First-Consul, a Tokyo-based consulting company, and one former company employee.
Takenaka has denied the charges.
Entering a new era: The league will permit two-year player contracts for the 2014-15 campaign. Since the league began play in the fall of 2005, maximum players contracts have been for one season.
It’s unclear if there will be a flurry of two-year deals signs or if it’s just another option on the table for teams’ front offices.