Justin Burrell has distinguished himself as one of the elite basketball players in Japan this decade.
The dynamic forward helped lead the expansion Yokohama B-Corsairs to the bj-league Final Four in 2012 and earned the circuit’s regular-season MVP award.
Since then, he’s been a vital contributor for the Chiba Jets and Mitsubishi/Nagoya Diamond Dolphins in both the NBL and B. League eras, and also played in France.
At the outset of the B. League’s inaugural season last fall, then-Diamond Dolphins coach Reggie Geary reminded anyone who would listen that Burrell’s leadership and all-around skills were necessary ingredients for Nagoya’s success.
Don’t expect new head coach Shingo Kajiyama to deliver a different message.
He served as a Diamond Dolphins assistant for three seasons, including the past two under Geary, a former NBA guard who decided to return to the United States with his family in the offseason.
Nagoya finished in fourth place in the six-team West Division last season, going 27-33. The Diamond Dolphins were moved to the Central Division.
The 204-cm Burrell was hampered by a right calf injury and missed a large chunk of games after the calendar flipped to 2017 before finishing strong to end the season. He appeared in 45 games and averaged 16.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 blocks. In the All-Star Game, he had 18 points and 12 rebounds for B. Black.
“The team is looking forward to going into the new season with our new coach, Coach Kaji-san,” Burrell told The Japan Times. “We believe he’s going to bring some fresh new looks into how we can play and be effective and help us to overcome some of the obstacles we faced last year.
“We are looking forward to having him coach us and help us be better players.”
The Diamond Dolphins face the host Kawasaki Brave Thunders in the teams’ season opener on Friday night.
A St. John’s University alum who wrapped up his collegiate career in 2011 under bench boss Steve Lavin, Burrell said he had a productive summer.
“The offseason was a great time for me to get home and refresh and spend time with my family,” the New York native said. “I actually got a chance to get some treatment on my calf muscle. I feel pretty much back to normal now. The rest was really important for me as well as the treatment.”
Burrell, 29, is one of two team captains this season. The other is 25-year-old frontcourt mate Tenketsu Harimoto, who averaged 10.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in 2016-17.
Key returnees also include American forward Jerome Tillman, who drained 111 3-pointers this past season. The 198-cm Tillman helps stretch the floor for the Diamond Dolphins offense. He scored 16.3 points per game and pulled down 7.3 rebounds a season ago.
Small forward Seiya Funyu and shooting guard Taito Nakahigashi are also back.
Talented youngster Takaya Sasayama, who’s only 24, could be on the verge of blossoming into a full-fledged star in the backcourt. He started all 60 games last season and provided solid scoring punch (10.4 points) and steady passing (2.9 assists).
The Diamond Dolphins’ revamped roster includes point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi, who left the SeaHorses Mikawa after 11 seasons, and frontcourt veterans Craig Brackins and Hiromasa Omiya.
Brackins, an Iowa State product, averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 31 games for the Shiga Lakestars last season. The 21st pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2010 NBA Draft, Brackins, who turns 30 on Oct. 9, played sparingly (17 games) for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns. He’s now plied his craft overseas for several years, including in Turkey, Poland and China.
The 34-year-old Omiya averaged 2.3 points in a limited role for the Ryukyu Golden Kings last season.
A change of scenery could be beneficial for the three just-mentioned newcomers and the Diamond Dolphins.
“We are looking forward to some of the newcomers that we have, Craig Brackins, Shinsuke and Omi. Those guys are veterans,” Burrell said. “They play basketball at high levels for a very long time. They bring great leadership and support, guys we can also lean on in a time of need and be able to score the ball and play defense at high levels for our team.”
Meanwhile, Burrell maintains a strong bond with Geary, who coached him at Yokohama and Chiba (2014-15) before they both joined the Diamond Dolphins.
“Yes, coach is somebody I seek out as a mentor,” Burrell said of Geary. “Even when I was in France, I sought him out for advice and just spoke with him throughout the times I was away, just as a friend as well. I speak to him about life, different things, and business ventures, just different things in general.”
Shifting the conversation back to the upcoming season, Burrell recognizes that patience is a key to making adjustments.
“The season is going to be an interesting one,” Burrell said. “With the new coach, there’ll be some ups and downs as we all grow with him. With new guys on the team, we are learning how to play with one another.
“Implementing a new system is never easy,” he cautioned.
For Nagoya, entertaining the fans is a part of the team’s mission.
“We are looking forward to exciting our fans with playing this up-tempo game, scoring more points and being a team that is out in transition and really putting pressure on teams to defend us without fouling,” Burrell said. “So I’m looking forward to it and I’m hoping this is a season that we’ll remember forever.”
There’s no secret formula to finish in first place or win every game. Instead, Burrell said, the Diamond Dolphins are taking a different approach.
“Our goal is to play hard during the regular season and win as many games as possible to get to the playoffs,” Burrell concluded, “and in the playoffs literally anything can happen.”