For the Oita HeatDevils, Rashaad Singleton is the last line of defense.
The 213-cm center leads the league in blocked shots (4.8 per game, 78 total rejections), and he’ll continue to get better.
He turned 22 on May 22.
“Rashaad is a true 7-foot center who is a natural defensive player,” said HeatDevils coach Brian Rowsom, a former NBA player. “I am working with him on his offense. That will come, though. He reminds me of Dikembe Mutombo, who was the same way when he first appeared in the NBA (in 1991).”
Mutombo was a four-time recipient of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in a distinguished career that ended last season.
As for Singleton, “he has a great timing for blocking shots and he is a good jumper as well, very strong,” Rowsom said. “He changes a lot of shots in the paint as well that go unblocked. He is our defensive anchor for sure.”
Singleton has blocked three or more shots in 15 games this season for Oita (7-9), which faces the defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (11-3) on the road this weekend.
Premier shot-blockers Jeff Newton and George Leach give Ryukyu an unmistakable element of toughness on defense, and forward Anthony McHenry has terrific timing as well, blocking his fair share of shots (he’s No. 2 on the team with 22 blocks, one behind Newton).
In addition, Singleton has had 10 games with five or more blocks, including a season-best seven in Oita’s 82-55 home win over the Toyama Grouses last Sunday.
Singleton is averaging a modest 10.7 points per game. He has been a liability at the free-throw line (45.8 percent, 27-for-58), but is one of the league’s top rebounders (12.6 rebounds per game, sixth-best output).
The big fellow spent three seasons at the University of Georgia. As a junior in 2007-08, he played 13.6 minutes per game (2.7 ppg) and then opted to transfer to Division II Florida Southern for his final collegiate season. Last season, Singleton helped Florida Southern win 29 of its 36 games, averaging 6.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
So how did Singleton make the jump from the Lakeland, Fla.-based college to a pro team in Kyushu?
Rowsom’s agent sent him a video of Singleton’s playing highlights.
“I saw it, had some questions about it because videos are never the same as seeing the player play in person,” Rowsom said. “But at the same time, I was already in Japan and had to take a chance on signing him based on the video.”
What did Rowsom see on the video?
“He was a big player who could move, was mobile for his size, so we decided to take a chance on him.”
It was a wise decision.
Or as Rowsom put it: “He has proved to be the top defensive player in the league and one of the better rebounders, too. Once he improves offensively, I think he will be the top big man in the league and a potential NBA prospect.”
Now, with a pair of wins since ex-Osaka Evessa guard Matt Lottich joined the team, the HeatDevils figure to be a legitimate Final Four contender this spring.
“Matt is a proven winner,” Rowsom said, “which is what we are trying to learn how to do. He also provides a couple of major qualities that we need: a great shooter and a ball handler, which helps our outside shooting and also cuts down on our turnovers.
“Turnovers were killing us in a lot of our games this season. We turned the ball over less this weekend,” he noted, looking back on the Toyama series. “And I can see how that will be a big plus for our team the rest of the season.”
Weekend slate: Other Saturday-Sunday series include Sendai 89ers (10-6) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa (14-2), a clash of the Eastern Conference’s top squads, Toyama (5-7) vs. Tokyo Apache (5-9), Kyoto Hannaryz (4-10) vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows (6-12), Niigata Albirex BB (4-8) vs. Osaka Evessa (8-8, including 1-4 in their last five games) and Rizing Fukuoka (11-7) vs. Shiga Lakestars (8-10).
Family affair: For the Lakestars, Dec. 19 will be a special basketball day, especially for power forward Gary Hamilton and center Luke Zeller.
Shiga coach Bob Pierce provided insight about the upcoming University of North Carolina-University of Texas marquee matchup on that day, saying “the importance of the game is far beyond the battle of two teams ranked in the top 10. It’s also the battle of little brothers.” He added: “The reason that the North Carolina-Texas game is important to us is that it will match up Luke’s brother, sophomore Tyler Zeller (213 cm, North Carolina) and Gary’s brother, Jordan Hamilton (200 cm, Texas).”
Gary Hamilton, a 208-cm player, attended the University of Miami (Fla.) and the 211-cm Luke Zeller played at Notre Dame.
Both players had distinguished high school careers, with Hamilton earned second-team All-State accolades at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles and Zeller garnering Indiana’s Mr. Basketball honors and McDonald’s All-American recognition as a senior.
But Zeller’s hoop roots run deeper.
“His uncle, Al Eberhard, played for four seasons with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons,” Pierce revealed. “Luke reached legendary status in Indiana basketball lore after hitting game-winning shot from midcourt as time expired in overtime to lead his Washington team to the Class 3A state championship.
He added: “The amazing thing is that both Gary and Luke come from true basketball families. Gary has three younger brothers, Jordan, Isaac, and Daniel, and Luke has two younger brothers, Tyler and Cody. And all the brothers are very good basketball players.”
Pierce did his homework on the subject before passing along the intriguing details to The Japan Times.
“Tyler Zeller was a member of the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heel’s championship team. He led Carolina with 18 points in his collegiate debut against Penn, going 5-for-8 from the floor and 8-for-10 from the free throw line. It was the first time a player making his college debut led the Tar Heels in scoring since Tyler Hansbrough had 21 against Gardner-Webb to begin the 2005-06 season,” the coach said.
“Just like Luke, Tyler played at Washington High School and was selected Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2008 and was a McDonald’s All-American. He averaged 33.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game as a senior and shot 69 percent from the floor and 82 percent from the free-throw line.
“Jordan Hamilton spent his junior and senior years at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. He was ranked as the No. 8 prospect nationally by ESPNU following his senior season, and was selected as a Jordan All-American. He averaged 27.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game as a junior while leading Dominguez to a 32-3 mark and the CIF Southern Section Division I-AA championship.
“And the younger brothers may be better still! Cody Zeller (206 cm) is currently a junior at Washington High School in Indiana and is currently ranked as the No. 35 prospect for 2011 by Rivals.com. Isaac Hamilton (193 cm) is a freshman at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles and some think he could be the No. 1 prospect in 2013. And the youngest, Daniel Hamilton, is in eighth grade, and he thinks he will be the best of the brothers.”
Around the league: Albirex center Paul Butorac is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week, the league has announced.
Butorac, who played college ball at Eastern Washington, had a 32-point, 15-rebound, two-block effort in his team’s blowout victory over the Apache on Monday. This included a jaw-dropping 13-for-16 shooting performance from the field.
On Tuesday, Butorac finished with 12 points, 14 boards and three blocks to help Niigata record a series sweep. . . . Oita has released veteran point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who spent the previous four seasons with the Tokyo Apache. A steady defender, Maki is looking to join one of the league’s other 12 teams.
Closing commentary: Despite their three-week layoff between Nov. 15 and Monday, the Apache and the Albirex didn’t hold intrasquad scrimmages or exhibition games against college, semi-pro or amateur clubs, team officials confirmed. Instead, their routine consisted of more of the same: practice, practice and more practice.
But it’s the notion here the long layoff was an unwelcome break in the action for both struggling teams, as they seek to climb back into the playoff picture.
Furthermore, both teams failed to grasp the big picture: nothing improves a team more than actual games. And, it says here, they didn’t capitalize on this chance to give their players much-needed competition.
In fact, the league should have stepped in and demanded that the teams play at least two exhibition games during their respective long layoffs. Surely, there are dozens of college squads around the country which would’ve been eager to face better competition, and the league could’ve pulled those strings and made it happen.
The league and its teams want to be recognized as professional, but amateur stunts like this, do nothing to enhance the league’s reputation.