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Tennichi transforms Storks into second-division title contenders

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The Nishinomiya Storks built the foundation of their team around a slogan that hearkens back to another time.

“Determination action” lumped together is their slogan. Separately, each word is about the act of doing something. Combined together, the words sum up what first-year bench boss Kensaku Tennichi realized the team’s identity needed to become.

Considering it an inspirational phrase, Tennichi gleaned it from a former Panasonic Super Kangaroos teammate, George Puou, from the early 1990s in the old JBL.

Remembering that Puou, a Hawaiian who played college ball at San Jose State, had said “determination action” when they were teammates, he jokingly said he “stole” the words. (Puou is the longtime head coach for NCAA Division II Notre Dame de Namur University, formerly called College of Notre Dame, in Belmont, California.)

“Our team doesn’t have any experience,” Tennichi told The Japan Times, “and some guys who are playing for this club — (Naoki) Tani, (Tadahiro) Yanagawa, these guys . . . — have only played for the bottom of the league, when they played for NBL (clubs) or somewhere.

“When we got together in the summer, I really felt that these guys had to change mind, body, everything. We keep saying, ‘Oh, I can change. It’s really easy, right?’ But it’s kind of difficult, so when I was asked (for a slogan), the words we need . . . ‘determination action’ fit these guys.”

Fitting words that underscore the team’s mission.

The Storks are leading the B2’s six-team Central Division with a 39-15 record through Sunday. And since the start of March, they are 12-2. Only three B2 teams — Shimane Susanoo Magic (45-9), Hiroshima Dragonflies (42-12) and Kumamoto Volters (40-14) — have better records.

“We can run our offense and defense really as a team, I think,” Tennichi said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “That’s the biggest key, I think.”

Balanced scoring has helped the Storks pile up victories.

Naoki Tanki leads the club in scoring (13.7 points per game), followed by Draelon Burns (12.3), Larry Owens (11.9), Noriaki Douhara (10.7), Jordan Vandenberg (10.1), and Tadahiro Yanagawa (8.1).

“They really work well together,” Tennichi said. “We are doing shared time and share the job. We are really spread out on our job.”

Case in point: Tani is ninth overall in scoring in the second flight, tops among Japanese players. The team doesn’t have a player in any other top-10 individual categories. The Storks rely on teamwork and a commitment to the group, not individual glory.

One area where Tennichi’s leadership has paid off is the team’s excellent rebounding. The Storks are first among B2 teams with 43.6 rebounds per game.

“I always focus on the rebounding,” Tennichi said. He emphasizes this point by writing “REBOUND” on the white board in the team’s locker room before every game.

Veteran point guard and co-captain Akitomo Takeno suffered a severe knee injury that ended his season in early January and left a void on the roster. But the Storks’ acquisition of Burns, who had played starring roles on past bj-league championship teams (Yokohama B-Corsairs, 2012-13; and Ryukyu Golden Kings (2013-14, 2015-16), in December proved to be a pivotal moment in their season.

“We were looking for a guy who could run our offense and at the time score a little bit,” Tennichi said of the former DePaul University player.

“Drae is basically a 2 (shooting guard) or a 3 (small forward), but I think he has a great basketball IQ, and he’s a really good point guard right now.”

There was an adjustment period for Burns when he joined the Storks in early December. Tennichi deployed Burns, who has come off the bench in all 36 games he’s played for the Storks, at shooting guard and small forward, as well as at the point.

“But gradually we shifted him to point guard,” Tennichi noted.

The move has paid off.

Burns’ playmaking skills have helped his team in a big way. For instance, he had 16 points and a season-high nine assists in 20 action-packed minutes in a 92-76 win over the host Bambitious Nara last Saturday. A day later, he poured in 14 points in the Storks’ fifth straight victory.

With Takeno sidelined, Yanagawa and Kento Matsuzaki have shared responsibilities at point guard, the latter averaging 5.2 points a game.

Tani, meanwhile, has made his mark as a go-to scorer under Tennichi, who described him as a “pure shooter.” He’s the team leader in 3-pointers (82) and steals (57).

“He can shoot where he wants,” Tennichi added. “He understands our system and he can run our plays, and he knows where he can shoot or not.”

During the long season, forward Yuya Ishitsuka has made steady progress, with Tennichi saying that the 24-year-old Osaka Prefecture native is the team’s most improved player.

The 187-cm Ishitsuka is undersized at power forward, but puts in the effort at both ends of the court, Tennichi said. In the series opener against the Bambitious last weekend, Ishitsuka scored 19 points, a big component of the team’s rout.

“When he got here, he could jump, he has long arms and that’s all,” Tennichi recalled. “He didn’t have any good experience on the basketball (court), and he joined us and I thought he could be our 4 man. He really runs hard on the offense’s fast break — really full court. He improved his jump shot. From 15 or 17 feet (4.5 meters or 5.1 meters), he’s got a very good jump shot.”

Asked to pinpoint who have been Nishinomiya’s most consistent players, Tennichi cited Vandenberg, a North Carolina State product and Australian native, for his rebounding (a team-high 8.9 a game), Burns as prime examples.

In a different era, coaching in a different league, Tennichi and his team accomplished something special. The Osaka Evessa’s three-peat in the first three seasons of the now disbanded bj-league remains a unique feat in 21st century pro basketball in Japan. He left the Evessa in 2010 after five Final Four appearances and a 3-1 record in title games.

From 2010-16, Tennichi, 50, piloted the Ashiya University men’s team before joining the Storks. Now he’s back in familiar territory with his pro team among the league leaders in the latter stages of the season, and Tennichi is in his element making minor adjustments as the weeks roll on.

“When we started the season, our team was totally different from now,” he said, citing a few roster moves. “But our guys know how to run our offense and how to play zone defense, and also how to play one-on-one defense as a team.

“They have really developed themselves.”

With this progress, Tennichi said he likes his team’s chances of competing for the B2 title.

He agreed with the assessment that it’s a “pretty open race” for the inaugural championship.

“If we get at the top of this division, we can beat anyone,” said Tennichi, who has called former Los Angeles Lakers and the now-defunct JBL squad Panasonic’s bench boss Paul Westhead one of his most important mentors.

“We are really changing, we are really developing and improving ourselves, so we can beat anybody.”

But first things first. Tennichi is focused on getting his charges to achieve at a higher level.

“We have to really execute our plays on the offensive end and we stick to our roles on the defensive end,” he said. “When we play the 2-3 zone, we have some roles to play in the 2-3 zone, so we have to stick to it.

“At the offensive end, we have to really execute with (precise) angles and spacing. … But I think the most important thing is (focus on) ourselves, do our play.”

A talk with Michael Parker

Since his arrival in Japan to play for the Rizing Fukuoka a few weeks after the start of the 2007-08 season, Chiba Jets star Michael Parker’s all-around athleticism has been on display for decade, including stints with the Shimane Susanoo Magic, Wakayama Trians, and Toyota Alark (now known as the Alvark Tokyo) before joining his current club.

Blessed with quick reflexes and long arms, the 200-cm Parker is a defensive stopper. His ability to make steals and block shots in a hurry is well documented.

After Sunday’s game, when he had four blocks in the first half in an 84-77 triumph over the Alvark, Parker told The Japan Times that his maturation as a defender has made it harder for opponents to guess what he’ll do next.

“A lot of times I will close out on shots just as people are shooting, they’ll know I’ll run out on them,” he said. “But then every so often I’ll really try for it, and that’s when I get the blocks on the jump shots because people are always used to me running at them, so they don’t ever think I’m going to really take that next step to ever try and get it. And then I pick and choose when I can really try to get it.”

The Jets take great pride in blocking shots, according to Parker, noting the stat of the game on Sunday was Chiba’s eight blocks against Tokyo’s zero.

“Getting blocks and playing hard defense, that’s a hard way to win a game,” Parker said, “but it’s the most consistent way to win. If you can do that, it sets a tone. It’s like, ‘They are blocking our shots today. We’ve got to try something else.’

“So we try to have a tough mentality on the inside, and Hilton (Armstrong) is a great shot blocker, he’s an amazing shot blocker.”

Led by Parker (1.8 blocks per game, No. 3 among players in B1) and Armstrong (1.5, fifth), the Jets are No. 2 in the 18-team top division in blocks (4.2), trailing only Osaka (4.3).

Looking ahead

Here’s a rundown of the weekend’s first-division matchups, with nine series set to start on Saturday: Akita vs. Tochigi, Nagoya vs. Kyoto, Chiba vs. Sendai, Osaka vs. Ryukyu, Hokkaido vs. Tokyo, Shibuya vs. Kawasaki, Yokohama vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. San-en and Shiga vs. Mikawa.