URAYASU, CHIBA PREF. - Shinshu Brave Warriors guard Derek Raivio makes basketball look like a simple game, taking complex concepts and executing them with ease.
His ability to break the game down quickly and effectively and thrive in those situations has caught people’s attention around the bj-league this season.
Chiba Jets center Antoine Broxsie said Raivio doesn’t need to stop and analyze the action, revealing the 27-year-old’s dominance is a direct result of his ability to operate in “flow time.”
Broxsie said Raivio reads, reacts and makes plays as the game unfolds, all in one uninterrupted blur.
And despite playing for a team in one of the league’s smaller markets in Nagano Prefecture, Raivio’s ability and propensity to take over games — he had 13 fourth-quarter points against the Jets on March 3 to lead his team to a road win — is no secret.
Raivio has become one of the league’s elite ball handlers and clutch scorers while playing for the expansion Brave Warriors (15-23, seventh place in the Eastern Conference after a bye week).
This included 18 — and 22-point games against the Jets and nine total assists as he teams up with captain Takato Saito in the backcourt that only partially quantifies what he does for his club: drawing the defense to him and making them pay attention to him every second he’s on the court as he attacks the hoop, sets up shop on the perimeter, creates space for shots, slips by a defender and drives the baseline for a play near the hoop or a variation of the just-mentioned scenarios.
“For the bj-league, he is a very good player,” Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic told Hoop Scoop. “He’s smart, with good dribbling, assists and timing. He’s a good shooter and has perfect free-throw (shooting techniques).”
As the playmaker, Pavlicevic noted, “he leads the team and he knows what he wants: assists, driving, shooting. He’s a good and competitive character for basketball and his defense is good.”
After Shinshu defeated his club in back-to-back contests, Jets coach Eric Gardow provided this insight on Raivio two weeks ago: “He’s got great ball control. He’s got a great IQ (for the game), a great free-throw shooter.
“When the ball’s in his hands, he put the game away yesterday (March 3) with eight free throws in the fourth quarter. He controls the tempo, very smart, been brought up well.
Added Gardow, “He’s a great player, and being a professional, he’s doing his job. That’s what he’s here for. He’s special though, he’s definitely special. He’s got a basketball IQ and a savvy about him that’s fun to watch, hard to play against, but fun to watch.”
Raivio, who’s averaging 18.1 points per game, recognizes he is a leader and doesn’t shy away from accepting this responsibility.
“Even in college, I knew what it takes to be effective,” he said, “and I just want to use my leadership and be effective, and I usually lead by example, and then guys usually follow.”
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Raivio attended Gonzaga and was selected as the West Coast Conference’s Co-Player of the Year in 2006-07 as a senior. He was the WCC’s leading scorer (18.0 ppg), seventh in steals (1.5 per game), fifth in 3-point shooting (40.9 percent) and, oh yeah, was No. 1 in the nation in free-throw shooting (96.1 percent, 148-for-154).
When his college career had ended, Raivio was second in NCAA Division I history in free-throw shooting at 92.7 percent. In bj-league games this season, meanwhile, Raivio has stolen the spotlight with perfection at the free-throw line, 10-for-10 on three occasions.
So it’s no surprise that free-throw shooting is a major part of Raivio’s skill set in the pros. He’s giving Osaka’s Cohey Aoki, the bj-league’s all-time best at the charity stripe, a run for his money for the free-throw shooting title this season. Raivio is No. 2 at 88 percent (161-for-183 entering this weekend; Aoki is first at 89.1 percent.
But no matter where he is on the floor, Raivio strives to make an impact.
“I’m just trying to make the right play,” he said. “If I have the shot, I’m going to take it and set up my teammates. Game to game, it just depends on how they are playing me.”
Raivio’s pick-and-roll skills help keep coach Motofumi Aoki’s offense functioning, and his high lobs to dunk-happy teammates Edward Morris, Lee Roberts, Tyler Hughes and Kyle Lockett have won him a rabid following among Warriors supporters, many of whom made the long trek to Chiba to watch the first-year club battle the Jets, another expansion squad.
What makes Raivio, whose pick-and-roll skills remind one of watching ex-Gonzaga and Utah Jazz star John Stockton running the offense, a joy to watch is the way he changes speeds in the blink of an eye and the fact he goes all-out — he’s always hustling — every second he’s on the court.
“Honestly, my whole life, I’ve been the fastest or the strongest, so I think that’s one of my advantages and my strengths — my first step — and with quick bursts I can get a step on a guy,” Raivio said.
Finding a competitive edge, however big or small, is a major part of what makes athletes tick.
For Raivio, using speed is a way to compensate for his average size (191 cm).
Or as he put it: “Changing directions and playing against bigger guys my whole life, I’ve just has to adjust.”
Meanwhile, the seventh-place Brave Warriors are 15-23, five games behind the sixth-place Yokohama B-Corsairs (20-20) who are in position to be the Eastern Conference’s final playoff at press time. But there are a lot of games remaining before the postseason tips off in early May; teams’ fortunes will change, maybe even Shinshu’s.
It all begins with coach Aoki, who has previously guided the Takamatsu Five Arrows (2006-09) and Tokyo Apache (2009-10).
“You can tell he has a lot of experience, and he does really well and he handles every player different,” Raivio said. “He knows how to approach them and how to handle every player, and I think that comes with experience, and he’s demanding.
“We practice hard. Our practices are every day for three hours . . . so he expects people to perform.”
Did Aoki’s demanding presence create the right tone for the Brave Warriors from the get-go?
“Yeah, for sure,” Raivio said. “He holds us all accountable, and he’s made it clear that he knows we’re a new team, we don’t have much money, but we can fight.”
Shinshu doesn’t have a history of success or failure to draw lessons from. What the team does have, however, is a burning desire to succeed.
“We were a little unsure of what we were going to have going into the year as far as matchups with other teams,” Raivio admitted. “Now we talk about, ‘We can make it — (the playoffs),’ That’s our goal.”
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Raivio’s father, Rick, a gifted rebounder, played professionally in Europe (France and Belgium; Derek was born in Antwerp, when his father played ball in the Belgian League) for 11 years. He was a Los Angeles Lakers’ draft pick in 1980 (fifth round, 114th overall), and passed on his knowledge of the game to his sons: Derek, Nik and Matt, all of whom have played college ball.
Now, Derek is making preparations for his second annual summer hoop camp in Vancouver. Last summer, 50 school-age students, ranging from second-graders to high school seniors, attended the camp.
Younger brothers Nik, who played at the University of Portland like his dad (a UP Hall of Famer), and Matt, who went to a pair of junior colleges before transferring to British Columbia school Simon Fraser, helped run Derek’s camp last summer.
“That was my first year doing it,” Raivio said, reflecting on the experience, “and I always wanted to do it and give back a little bit.”
Playing a game may be a job for Raivio, but during his three seasons in Germany — he played against current Oita HeatDevils standout Matt Lottich there — he gained a greater appreciation of what it takes to succeed in this business. He took those lessons with him to the NBA Development League last season and then to Japan.
As a rookie pro suiting up for TBB Trier in Germany, his Serbian coach Sasha Obradovic made a lasting impression. And now, looking back on that experience, Raivio thinks it was good to have a different type of coach than the one he had in well-regarded Gonzaga mentor Mark Few.
“He’s very respected in Europe,” Raivio said of Obradovic. “He really showed me how to prepare for the games, by trying to improve every practice. Toughened me up and showed me how to be a professional. . . . He and coach Few were similar but different. Sasha was a player at the highest level in Europe. He knew all the ins and outs and what was possible on the floor and what to look for and how to read defenses. It was a refreshing perspective to have a high-level player as a coach.
“Coach Few is more tactical and great at making the right play call. Practices with Sasha were shorter, but more intense. In the first couple of months, I couldn’t recall a day off. It was business.”
Having attended two Shinshu games this season, the one thought that immediately comes to mind is this: Raivio has had quality coaching over the years, and used those lessons and natural ability to become a quality pro.