Like a bullet train zooming across the Japanese countryside, Bill Cartwright has rapidly transformed the Osaka Evessa into a much-improved basketball team.

It’s been an impressive turnaround.

The numbers clearly show that: 12 wins in 18 games, and seven straight victories under his tutelage. The Evessa were 5-19 when Cartwright arrived in Japan in January, and he held his first practice two days after the Jan. 20 All-Star Game.

Look at the Evessa season this way: B.B.C (Before Bill Cartwright) and A.B.C. (After Bill Cartwright took over).

The former Chicago Bulls coach has instilled confidence in his players, given them much-needed direction and stopped the once-mighty franchise from sinking like the Titanic.

And now the seventh-place Evessa (17-25) are closer to playoff-bound teams in the standings than the cellar in the 10-team Western Conference.

The Kyoto Hannaryz, the sixth-place club, are 23-19 through Sunday. Six teams will qualify for postseason play in each conference.

“I think as we come into these last 10 games (our) approach is to play as best as we can and not worry about everybody else,” Cartwright said after the Evessa completed a series sweep with a 79-66 triumph over the host Sendai 89ers last Sunday at Bayside Arena.

What’s more, Cartwright recognizes which player combinations work best together, and in crunch times he has figured out the best approach to maximize his players’ talents. In the fourth quarter, for instance, he wants guard Shota Konno on the floor, along with guard Shun Watanuki and power forward Mike Bell.

Yes, Konno is a key defender, Cartwright said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, “but more than that, as far as getting us over the hump (in a comeback win on Sunday), he came in, in the fourth quarter, and hit a big shot, and defensively he’s always really solid. He’s always going to be in the right spot, and he gives an unbelievable effort.

“It’s a comfort to have those three guys on the floor,” the longtime NBA center added, “because every game they are going to be really solid, so there’s no worries.”

Bell, a star forward in this league since 2009, believes the 25-year-old Watanuki has elevated his game under Cartwright’s wise guidance.

“He’s been doing this,” Bell said of his teammate. “He’s been a big contributor for us, especially in the fourth quarter. We’ve got a couple plays for him to just basically have the whole floor wide out, and everybody just plays off of him.

“Since coach has been here, he’s been putting it into his head to do this, and he’s getting better every game.”

Specifically, what has Cartwright done to help Watanuki become one of the most-improved Japanese guards in the league?

“I think it’s just the fact that coach saw what all the other players brought to the table, and it just opens things up for him as the point guard because people have to respect (him), especially with me, Nate (forward Nathan Walkup) and (guard) Dwayne (Lathan) on the floor, if we all spread out the floor, everybody can shoot. So it gives him more space to be able to create,” Bell said.

Dubbed “Teach” during his playing days, Cartwright brings a professorial sensibility to the court. That also extends to the locker room and even the team bus.

“After the game yesterday, I was on the bus riding back to the hotel with him watching film and I’m still learning to this day,” Bell, a Florida Atlantic University product, said.

“He’s still teaching me to this day. Sometimes it’s hard (learning) because it’s just continuous, but as long as you focus when it’s time to focus, you are going to learn if you are paying attention. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, just soaking everything in. I’m still learning to this day.”

As the Evessa have undergone a complete reversal of fortune since Cartwright’s arrival, teams can no longer expect to chalk up a pair of easy wins against Osaka, which was often the case during the season’s first 24 games under ex-bench bosses Zoran Kreckovic (0-4) and Takao Furuya (5-15).

“It’s not just spirit, man,” Bell said, “it’s also toughness. . . . We’ve just got that mental and physical toughness that we didn’t have before, and it’s coming from the leader and it trickles on down to us players as well.”

On Sunday, when Osaka played a lousy first quarter and trailed 18-6 entering the second stanza, Cartwright was an active presence on the sideline, waving his arms, stomping his feet, barking out instructions to his charges in an attempt to fuel a comeback.

It worked to drive home this point: Better effort was needed.

“Well, sometimes, yeah, you need to let the guys know how important a situation is,” the 55-year-old sideline supervisor said. “Like I called a timeout and (said) you gave up, what, four straight offensive rebounds, and we had three guys watching, with Nate and Mike there by themselves against five guys.

“So the times when we talk about something that doesn’t happen, it’s got to be really emphasized; and if it’s not, then there’s a lot of slippage. And also what you’ve got to understand is our guys are still learning what they are capable of. Shun can be a rebounder as well as (forward) Taizo (Kawabe). So what happened was Dwayne came back and he ended up getting three or four boards at the end of the game. So you’ve got to do it.”

Watanuki, who had a splendid 21-point, eight-rebound, five-assist effort Sunday, has impressed Cartwright, who called him the team’s best point guard. Veteran floor leader Masashi Obuchi is out with a season-ending injury, which has created more opportunities for Watanuki since early February.

“If the game is teetering, I’ve got to have him out there,” Cartwright said of Watanuki. “He can’t get off the floor. I’ve got to have him out there. I probably ask the most minute-wise out of him and Mike.”

Entering the weekend, Watanuki, in his first season on the Evessa, said he was ill. That didn’t stop Cartwright from delivering this message to him: “We had a talk about it and I said, ‘Look, you’re either sick or you’re not sick. You’ve got to play or not play.’

“So he sucked it up yesterday, and he sucked it up today. So to me that’s why he was good because he didn’t feel good, he didn’t feel like he could have his best game, and he still sucked it up and played well. So that guy you can play with.”

With the aforementioned seven straight wins, the Evessa have increased their confidence level, but still know there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“Now we’ll go back and reload and hopefully we can continue as a team to make steps. I thought that we had made steps defensively . . . but I feel like our energy level is really good. Now we’ve just got to make that extra effort and just be sharp offensively and shoot good shots,” Cartwright said.

Step by step, the former University of San Francisco All-American center has expanded the team’s playbook in the past two months. He admitted the squad is a work in progress.

“Our philosophy doesn’t change what we are trying to do, it’s just making a different play,” he said, describing the process. “And then it’s up to them whether they make the shot or not. I can’t shot it for them.”

After being fired by the Bulls in 2003, Cartwright worked as an assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns, then spent a season out of the NBA for the first time since being drafted by the New York Knicks in 1979. A basketball lifer, Cartwright is back in his element in the gym, just on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. (He grew up near Sacramento, California.)

What’s it like being in charge again? he was asked.

“I always felt, even as an assistant coach, I could make a contribution,” he said. “But I think that every assistant coach wants to be a head coach at one point in time. I do like it. I’ve been lucky because I think we have a really good group of guys that put up with me, especially because I’m going to ask a lot of them and they really try to do that, so I appreciate that and what we are trying to accomplish.

“What I ask is not easy to do, but I think that they see when we can get what I believe is our play accomplished defensively and offensively we are going to have a really good opportunity to win,” Cartwright noted.

Charting the team’s growth, including a grind-it-out 56-52 win over Sendai on Saturday, Cartwright said his players are getting comfortable playing close games. Before his arrival, the Evessa struggled to win those down-to-the-wire contests.

“We know now we can win,” he said, describing the team’s maturation.

Dropping two games to the host and reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (78-65 and 62-60 on Feb. 2 and 3) was an eye-opening experience for Cartwright.

Cartwright said, “I thought, ‘Wow, we just lost two games we should have won to the best team in the league. Are you kidding me?’

“We should be able to beat anybody,” he declared.

Cartwright said he doesn’t know if he will coach the Evessa next season.

“On Monday, I’m going to think about our next opponent,” he told The Japan Times. “I never think that far ahead as far as what I’m going to do. . . . I don’t know.”

He added: “I like what I’m doing. I’m having a good time. We have a really good organization. We have a great owner, Mr. (Koichi) Sato, who has treated me unbelievably well, and I appreciate him for that. . .”

Quotable, Part I: “If you like guys who are going to play and give a really great effort and you like to watch that, you can come and see us because our guys do do that. We give a great effort. We don’t make great decisions all the time, but our effort is outstanding.” — Cartwright, describing his team.

Quotable, Part II: “Jeremy has been crazy good in his first two games. I’m really proud of him. He still has too many turnovers but everything else is improving.” — former Tokyo Apache and NBA coach Bob Hill said of ex-Apache big man Jeremy Tyler, who has returned to the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Development League after stints with Santa Cruz and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks this season.

Quotable, Part I: “If you like guys who are going to play and give a really great effort and you like to watch that, you can come and see us because our guys do do that. We give a great effort. We don’t make great decisions all the time, but our effort is outstanding.” — Cartwright, describing his team.

Upcoming games: Iwate vs. Tokyo, Sendai vs. Akita, Toyama vs. Shiga, Shinshu vs. Takamatsu, Gunma vs. Niigata, Saitama vs. Oita, Yokohama vs. Fukuoka, Kyoto vs. Chiba, Miyazaki vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Shimane.

Player of the Week: The Lawson/Ponta MVP honor was given to Kyoto guard Masaharu Kataoka, it was announced on Wednesday.

Kataoka had 15 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Shinshu, sparking his team to victory. A day later, Kataoka scored 12 points as Kyoto completed a series sweep. He is averaging 10.0 points per game for the Hannaryz.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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