The Yokohama B-Corsairs were a solid, hard-working team before guard Draelon Burns arrived in the port city and donned the team’s colorful uniform for the first time.
But by signing Burns, the first-year franchise transformed itself into a very good basketball team.
Yokohama went 14-14 in its first 28 games. Since then, with Burns appearing in the final 24 games, the B-Corsairs are the league’s most improved — and hottest — team, going 17-7 in that span, including nine straight wins to close out the regular season.
The B-Corsairs (31-21), who finished the regular season in second place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, will make their playoff debut on Thursday. The visiting Akita Northern Happinets, who eliminated the Sendai 89ers on Sunday in a wild first-round series, will meet Burns and his teammates in the Thursday-Friday series. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium.
If necessary, a mini-tiebreaker game will be played after Game 2 to determine which team will advance to the Final Four.
“I would say he’s probably been the key player,” Sendai coach Bob Pierce said of Burns, analyzing Yokohama’s great run to end the season.
“He’s an outstanding 3-point shooter who usually does his best at the end of the game, and I would say the reason they are now in second place . . . because they’ve totally changed their team by having him come in. That was the one ingredient they were lacking.”
Burns, a 194-cm DePaul product, averaged 12.8 points in those 24 games, including starts in the final 18 contests. He dished out 64 assists against 38 turnovers and made 31 steals.
He also sank 38 3-pointers and shot 33.6 percent from beyond the arc. Burns scored 28 points on April 8 and a season-high 29 on March 25. What’s more, he made an eye-popping 55.4 percent of his 2-point attempts (72-for-130).
“Draelon Burns has been our only addition this season,” said Yokohama bench boss Reggie Geary, the bj-league’s 2011-12 Coach of the Year. “I think we’ve very proud that we kept our nucleus together for the most part almost the entire season. We didn’t change around a lot, we invested in our guys and (were) rewarded for that.
“Draelon’s experience, first and foremost, has been a nice addition to our team. His ability to stretch the floor and make plays … he just makes the game easier for our team to a degree, and that’s something we’ve needed and was nice to get from him.”
The B-Corsairs didn’t instantly thrive with Burns in the rotation. They went 5-5 over his first 10 games with the team, but really learned how to utilize his talents within the flow of the game. In addition, the B-Corsairs held foes to a league-low 72.8 points, while scoring a modest 75.8.
Burns, a 26-year-old Milwaukee native, has played professionally in Israel, Iceland and Germany. In college, his scoring average increased from 3.4 points as a freshman to 11.6, 11.6 and 17.6 over the next three seasons. His 17.6 points as a senior in 2007-08 placed him fourth overall in the ultra-talented Big East Conference.
Regular-season MVP Justin Burrell, a tough-as-nails power forward, averaged 18.7 points per game and B-Corsairs captain Masayuki Kabaya contributed 10.9 as Yokohama developed a balanced attack on offense.
Kabaya has “a real sense for scoring,” Pierce said.
Burrell praised Kabaya for his all-around abilities and the way he’s set the tone for the team since training camp.
“(Kabaya) leads by example,” Burrell said. “He’s definitely a vocal leader. . . . He’s a tremendous player. He has one of the best fadeaway jumpers I’ve seen with my own eyes. Now I ran across some big-time players in the Big East, I’ve played summer leagues and things like that with a lot of pros, but his fadeaway jumper is one of the most deadly I’ve seen.”
Akita lost all four meetings with Yokohama this season by single digits: 72-69 on Jan. 28 and 79-72 on Jan. 29 at Yokohama International Swimming Pool; and 80-78 on April 7 and 92-89 on April 8 in Akita. But Happinets coach Kazuo Nakamura has had great success in the bj-league, leading the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to three Final Fours and back-to-back championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11 before he took over as Akita coach days after the Phoenix’s second championship, a move first reported by The Japan Times.
After closing out the regular season with four straight wins over the 89ers, Geary looked back on that challenge — facing a team with two 213-cm big men in Rashaad Singleton and Filip Toncinic — as ideal preparation for the playoffs.
“Just the physicality of it, they are a good defensive team and they’ve shown that throughout the season,” Geary said. “Size-wise, they are on par with Okinawa (Ryukyu Golden Kings) to a degree, so it’s good for our guys to see them.