HIRATSUKA, KANAGAWA PREF. – Justin Burrell embodies the best attributes of professional sports.
Blessed with talent and youthful exuberance, the Yokohama B-Corsairs power forward keeps improving and stays focused to lead his team to success.
B-Corsairs head coach Reggie Geary has witnessed the rookie’s professionalism and ever-present commitment to excellence on a daily basis.
“Justin has been a pleasure to coach this year,” Geary said. “It’s been very enjoyable to watch his maturation as a player and person from day one with us in this his first year out of college.
“Justin has become more and more comfortable with being our go-to guy and with the responsibilities that come with it.
“He’s a tireless worker, a good teammate who’s quick to laugh with others, and unselfish to a fault at times,” the coach continued. “He truly cares for those he plays with, and as good as a player as he is on the court, he’s a better person off it.”
The St. John’s product, named the Big East Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year as a senior, represented the B-Corsairs in the 2011-12 All-Star Game on Jan. 15 at Saitama Super Arena. Equally significant, he’s the team’s first bona-fide star, and for an expansion squad that’s a history-in-the-making detail that will have greater meaning in the future.
The B-Corsairs have won 20 of their last 28 games entering this weekend’s two play dates, the final series of the regular season, against the Sendai 89ers in Tohoku. At 29-21, Yokohama owns the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, far better than the East’s three other expansion clubs: Shinshu Brave Warriors (18-32), Chiba Jets (18-32) and Iwate Big Bulls (17-35).
Burrell, averaging 18.9 points (eighth-best output in the league) and 9.9 rebounds (10th-best), is the team’s high-energy tone-setter. For a first-year pro, shooting 52.3 percent from the field is no simple task, but he’s been consistently good throughout the season.
Yokohama captain Masayuki Kabaya described Burrell as a “joke machine,” which elicited a good-hearted chuckle from the assembled media members after last Saturday’s game against Sendai. After the laughter subsided, Kabaya called Burrell the team’s “core player” and “the backbone of the team.”
Burrell recognizes his strengths and dedicates himself to improving them. He doesn’t set up shop on the perimeter, waving his arms and demanding his teammates pass him the ball for a heavy load of 3-point shots.
In fact, he’s made more than three times as many dunks (51) as 3-point attempts (15). Call it his power game.
Burrell’s chiseled 211-cm, 107-kg frame is built for rugged competition in the paint. But he knows how to use his natural speed to make an impact.
“Justin Burrell is as quick as any big man as there is in the country,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin was quoted as saying before Burrell’s senior season.
After seeing Burrell post double-doubles on April 20 and 21, including game-high totals of 21 points and 14 boards in the second game in Hiratsuka, 89ers coach Bob Pierce commented on the way Yokohama’s No. 24 guides his team in the right direction.
“He’s a very physical player who’s athletic enough that he can get into the paint and score over people,” Pierce said moments after declaring Burrell is a legitimate MVP candidate. “Not a lot of guys that can score over (Sendai’s) Johnny Dukes or Rashaad (Singleton) and he did that many, many times. So the fact that he can do that puts him a cut above, and he rarely ever does anything outside of his comfort level.
“He plays within himself and doesn’t force things and he trusts his teammates. You can tell just by listening to him on the court he’s a great team player. He listens to his coach. He talks to his teammates. And it’s rare to find somebody who has both those qualities as a young player coming out of college.
“I think Reggie made a great choice and getting Justin was one of the fine examples of the type of player that make the bj-league special.”
During one-on-one or group interviews, Burrell is a pleasant conversationalist. Polite and articulate, he expresses his opinion in thoughtful, measured tones, never relying on monosyllabic answers to dissuade journalists from speaking to him.
He’s an optimist, but not overly glowing in praise about what’s occurred on the basketball court. Instead, he’s quick to offer an honest critique about what he and his team can do better.
“Looking back on the season so far, I’m happy how it’s turned out,” the native New Yorker said. “Of course, a couple games got away from us that I wish we could have won. I like how our team has progressed, how we’ve gotten better, seeing guys in practice improve individually. Even our coaching staff has grown to trust us. They have put us in better situations as they have learned how we play.
“So over the course of the season I’m really proud how everybody has grown as a team and as individuals.”
No easy task for an expansion team. Nor is it a simple role to be a team leader as a rookie, playing for an expansion team in a foreign country — the latter two details only compound that challenge. But from the start, Geary, a former guard for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs before playing in several other countries, saw an unyielding determination and talent in Burrell that had him primed to be the team’s anchor.
In addition, Burrell trusted his coach’s instincts.
“Coach Geary, he’s really believed in me from the (start),” Burrell revealed. “He told me he’s going to put the ball in my hands . . . and give me an opportunity to lead our team.
“I’ve always been a vocal leader, so I’ve always been able to express my opinion to people and people respond, but that can only work now if you lead by example as well.”
To be a leader, Burrell set out to “win sprints, never take a play off and play hard.”
Why the fuss about sprints?
“I can’t tell you to run hard if I’m not running hard myself,” Burrell insisted. “I can’t tell you to shoot harder, focus on your shots, if I’m not doing those things.”
Geary, a one-time defensive demon in the backcourt for the University of Arizona, received a terrific hoop education from longtime Wildcats coach Lute Olson.
Burrell, on the other hand, benefited from the accumulated wisdom of two St. John’s head coaches (Norm Roberts and Steve Lavin) and their staffs during his four years at the NYC school.
“Norm Roberts, he really instilled a lot of the grounds for my growth,” Burrell said. “Coming in, I played at a high level (at Bronx, New York’s Our Savior Lutheran High School and Maine’s Bridgton Academy, a prep school) but I didn’t understand what it takes to be efficient on the highest level. Coach Roberts taught me all those essential tools you need as a player to grow and be able to succeed.”
Mike Dunlap, one of Lavin’s well-traveled assistants, reinforced the fundamental lessons that Burrell had picked up early in his college career.
“He taught me how to use those tools that Coach Roberts and his staff instilled in me: how to be physical, how to read zones, how to read defenses, read body language, learn when a player’s tired,” Burrell said of Dunlap.
By all accounts, Burrell is a terrific student of the game, and his B-Corsairs teammates are equally adept at helping him thrive during the most difficult on-court situations.
“As far as my play goes, I really have to put the onus on my team. They’ve really put me in positions to score the basketball at a high level,” Burrell said.
He added: “We pride ourselves on this: everybody has a role on the basketball team. The more that role is defined, and the more that role is embraced by the players, and everybody does their job at a high level, hey, man, you’re going to win a lot of games.
“Early in the season we were defining that, finding out about players. Now we’re in a situation where we’re in a groove. We’ve figured it out, we’re rolling with it.”
Perhaps the B-Corsairs’ ascension will continue with a trip to the Final Four on May 19-20 at Ariake Colosseum. But even if that doesn’t happen, this season has been a genuine success for Geary’s charges, especially Burrell.
“Justin is the best combination of size and skill in the league in my opinion,” Geary said. “Others possess the skill, some even the size, but I haven’t seen anyone else put the combination together better.
“He is a problem for the opposing team every night and he makes the game easier for his teammates.”
For Burrell, the bj-league may someday be remembered as only the first destination in a distinguished pro career.
(Ex-Tokyo Apache post player Jeremy Tyler, now with the Golden State Warriors, made the jump to the NBA after reaping the benefits of working with Bob Hill during the 2010-11 campaign.)
“For him to be only 24 years old, in his first year of professional basketball, and to play at such a high level successfully is very impressive,” Geary said.
“As a former NBA player and NBA Development League head coach, I’ve worked with a number of players who have gone on to play in the NBA. Justin has all the physical and mental tools to play at the NBA level if given the opportunity.”