Basketball / B. League

Makoto Hiejima never found comfort zone with Brisbane Bullets

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Several factors contributed to 2017-18 B. League MVP’s Makoto Hiejima lack of playing time and abrupt departure from the NBL club Brisbane Bullets in Australia last week, The Japan Times has learned.

The Japan Times reached out to several well-informed basketball sources in Australia to get to the heart of the matter.

Bullets assistant coach Mick Downer summed it up best.

“Makoto didn’t receive a lot of playing time opportunities because of our depth and (it’s) such a tough league,” Downer told The Japan Times on Sunday. “I think if we won a lot early in the season and had some wiggle room to play him into the rotation, it may have worked out differently, but the league is so close.”

Indeed. Through Saturday, the Sydney Kings (13-7) had the most wins. Only five victories separated first place and seventh place in the eight-team circuit, though the New Zealand Breakers (8-10) had played two fewer games at that point.

When 190-cm shooting guard Hiejima, who starred for the SeaHorses Mikawa (formerly known as the Aisin SeaHorses during the JBL/NBL era) for five seasons, announced his departure from Brisbane last Wednesday, the club had a 10-9 record.

Now, Hiejima is set to play the rest of the season with the B. League title-contending Tochigi Brex, whom he joined in the summer, then bolted for Australia to play for the Bullets. The Brex assured Hiejima he was free to rejoin the team at any time.

The Bullets opened their season on Oct. 11 and lost six of their first 10 games.

Furthermore, Australia national team bench boss Andrej Lemanis, a two-time NBL Coach of the Year, also guides the Bullets.

Looking back, that fact didn’t enhance Hiejima’s chances of receiving extending playing time with Brisbane. He appeared in under a minute in all three of his Bullets appearances.

The reality is that the Bullets’ top players are commanding most of the court time. As Downer noted, Hiejima was playing behind two Australia national team guards, Cameron Glidden and Jason Cadee, an ex-Olympian (center Cameron Bairstow, who spent two seasons with the Chicago Bulls) and an American import, Lamont Patterson, “who is likely to be a First Team All-Star.” Patterson is averaging 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

Downer said that Hiejima, a vital Japan national team player, embraced the coaching staff’s advice, but the language barrier proved problematic.

“He was great to coach and really diligent in learning the game the way is played in the NBL but it was very challenging coaching through translation,” Downer admitted. “He understands basketball at a high level but it was the ability to communicate split-second decisions live that was the biggest challenge, (and) unfortunately he was often part of a lot of defensive breakdowns.

“Over time his best way of learning was to sub out and observe in his own eyes what we are doing then sub in and try and execute. This strategy helped him read what was going on but limited his practice time. All the little nuances of the game and scouting adjustments were the greatest challenges.”

In the future, Downer believes Hiejima has the skills and athleticism to become a solid contributor in Australia pro hoops, saying, “Makoto could could definitely compete in the NBL under the right circumstances and ideally with a Japanese basketball coach as a translator.”

In short, the Bullets and Hiejima weren’t an ideal fit this season.

“He had several translators assisting him but an elite level coach who could really explain the ‘why’ and ‘how’ and not just ‘what’ had been said would help,” Downer commented. “His shooting, using pick-and-roll and passing was very good.”

Looking back on Hiejima’s short stint with the Bullets, Downer also stated that “he fit into the culture of the locker room and the Aussie guys really loved him as a teammate.”

The coach continued: ” ‘Mo-Mo’ was one of his Aussie nicknames. He was an extremely popular player with the team.”

Hiejima’s departure appears to be mutually beneficial. After all, he’s in his prime and can’t excel if he’s sitting on the bench all the time.

Downer agreed.

“Given his age and being the MVP of the Japan league, and the World Cup and Olympics around the corner, it was critical for him to play,” he underlined, “and as the season was moving forward this was looking less likely as we settle on a rotation that has been working.

“Lastly with a few health concerns with our frontcourt players we needed some assurances in the wing/forward depth so we had to bolster this part of the roster unfortunately at the expense of Makoto.”