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Rookie standout Hassan Martin says defensive focus fuels Ryukyu’s success

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The retooled Ryukyu Golden Kings have reshaped their team with a savvy formula that combines speed, finesse and power and the vital contributions of newcomers.

Sharpshooter Takatoshi Furukawa, for instance, starred for the title-winning Tochigi Brex last season, and was the high scorer (15 points) for the Kings in Sunday’s 74-55 shellacking of the host Yokohama B-Corsairs. Ira Brown, who notched a double-double (14 points, 10 boards), was a key player for the Sunrockers Shibuya in the 2016-17 campaign.

And rookie power forward Hassan Martin, who wrapped up his banner collegiate career at the University of Rhode Island last spring by helping the Rams advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Lamar Odom starred for the school in 1999, finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, two steals and a block in nearly 27 minutes.

It was another productive performance for the chiseled 203-cm Martin, who leads the West Division-leading Golden Kings (14-5) in scoring (14.0) and rebounding (8.6). He’s made 11 starts in those 19 games. He brings energy and a dynamic presence in the low post for Ryukyu as first-year coach Norio Sassa puts his stamp on the team.

It all starts with defense. The Golden Kings are allowing a league-low 65.3 points a game. The top flight’s 17 other teams are well aware of why this is happening. Ryukyu’s foes are shooting 38.6 percent from the field, also the lowest percentage in B1.

Sassa preaches defense and his players embrace that message.

“Defense,” said Martin, “that’s his thing. That’s the mentality. Defense leads to offense. If we don’t score, they don’t score. The less points they have, the higher chance we have of winning.

“The thing he really instills in us is having a defensive mindset, even when we have a big lead.”

Ryukyu’s successful defense isn’t a set-in-stone plan. Sassa makes adjustments and deploys his personnel in schemes that are designed to weaken the opposition.

“Defensively, we have to adjust to each team,” said Martin, the Atlantic-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. “Every team has different weapons, different strengths.

“Each week in practice we say we’ve got to do this for that player . . . we’ve got to do such and such more.”

With nearly one-third of the season completed, are the Golden Kings meeting their own expectations?

“Definitely,” Martin admitted. “We knew in the beginning of the season we had some work to do, but defensively we are really getting it going. Guys are confident offensively. Our guards are making a lot of shots and that’s why everyone’s really confident at this point in the season. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

More and more, Hassan Martin is becoming a household name around the B. League.

While many Japanese fans were unaware of his accomplishments at Rhode Island, they now see his contributions week after week for the title-chasing Kings.

Ira Brown, for one, admitted he’s impressed with the New York City native’s athleticism.

“He can jump out of the gym,” Brown said of Martin, who hails from Staten Island, before praising his teammate’s defensive tenacity and rebounding skills.

On offense, Brown added, “Martin has a nice touch around the basket.”

New York Post writer Zach Braziller described Martin as “owning the paint” during monumental home wins over Davidson and Virginia Commonwealth before the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Those around the URI basketball team know how significant Martin’s contributions were during his four years there.

“He’s really like a generational player for us,” Rhode Island assistant Jimmy Carr was quoted as saying by the New York Post in March. “He put a huge stamp on this program.”

In college, Martin increased his scoring output from 6.3 points per game as a freshman to 11.4, 12.0 and 13.6 over the next three seasons.

Now making his mark as a pro player, Martin offered this assessment of his play: “As a rookie, I think I’m doing OK. I’ve still got a lot to work on, I’ve got a lot to improve on. It’s still kind of early in the season. I’m just a rookie so I’m never satisfied.

“Even when I have a good game, there’s always holes in my game that I’ve got to improve on. As the season goes along, I just want to keep doing that.”

That said, Martin, who competed for the Orlando Magic in the NBA Summer League in Orlando, Florida, recognizes that rebounding and blocking shots are two pillars of his game.

“I use my athleticism attacking the rim, playing above the rim, and having that soft touch around the rim as well,” he noted, examining his offensive skills.

It hasn’t taken long for Martin to notice that Brown, one of the Kings’ tone-setting veterans, is an important team leader.

“Guys like Ira, he’s a vet. Everybody looks up to him,” Martin said, “and everyone listens to him when he talks. He’s been great vocally talking to us, and especially to me because I’m a rookie and he’s been playing professionally for a while. I really take notes and listen to what he says. But not only that, the unity of this team has really been strong. No one’s selfish.

“Everyone loves each other off and on the court, so that’s the reason why we’re doing kind of good.”

Balanced scoring has helped, too. Brown (10.4 ppg), Ryuichi Kishimoto (9.5), ex-NBA center Hilton Armstrong (7.7) Furukawa (7.5) Shota Tsuyama (7.4), Yutaro Suda (6.1), Kohei Ninomiya (5.0) and Takumi Ishizaki (4.6) are among the regular contributors.

Martin scored a season-high 23 points on Nov. 5 against Levanga Hokkaido. The 2013 Warren Jacques Award recipient (given annually to Staten Island’s most outstanding high school basketball player), had 22 points and 14 rebounds on Nov. 11 versus the Nishinomiya Storks. He has six double-doubles. He’s shooting 64.5 percent from the field.

As a team, the Kings are fifth in steals (7.1 a game), fourth in 3-point shooting percentage (36.5) and third in assists (19.9 a game).

“The depth of the guards is ridiculous,” Martin said, sizing up his team’s talented Japanese backcourt standouts. “I’m mostly impressed with the way that they shoot it. They all can really shoot, off the dribble and catch-and-shoot.”

Fearlessness with the ball and impressive shooting mechanics are keys, according to the Curtis High School graduate.

“They’ve got great form, great technique, and they are really smart, too. High IQ players,” Martin concluded.

Upcoming games

This weekend’s top-flight schedule tips off with three series openers: Hokkaido vs. Nagoya, Kawasaki vs. Mikawa and Shiga vs. Ryukyu. A day later, it’s Tokyo vs. Osaka, San-en vs. Toyama, Shibuya vs. Chiba, Kyoto vs. Shimane, and Nishinomiya vs. Niigata. Yokohama plays host to Tochigi in a Sunday-Monday series.

Tyler update

Former Tokyo Apache and NBA big man Jeremy Tyler joined the Sydney Kings of Australia’s NBL in late November.

The well-traveled Tyler, now 26, played in the Chinese Basketball Association the last three seasons for a trio of teams (Shanxi Zhongyu, Fujian Sturgeons and Tianjin Ronggang). For Tianjin, Tyler posted averages of 20.8 points, 9.6 boards and 1.3 blocks last season.

“We feel Jeremy will help us with his size, rebounding and international experience. Three seasons in the Chinese CBA provided him with that,” Kings managing director Jeff Van Groningen said, according to an article on the team website.

Kings coach Andrew Gaze, a legendary Australian scorer, remarked, “Jeremy Tyler will give us a strong presence down low at both ends of the floor. His rebounding and shot-blocking will be great for us.”

On Dec. 2, Tyler, who suited up for the now-defunct Apache in the 2010-11 campaign, contributed 21 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in an 80-71 loss to the Cairns Taipans.

Feedback

Contact the reporter: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp