As a college freshman, Kai Toews has quickly become a player to pay attention to.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington point guard is one of the elite passers in all of NCAA Division I basketball (351 institutions).
The Tokyo native is averaging 7.7 assists through the first 20 games of the college season, and the Seahawks have relied on Toews to initiate their offense since the season tipped off in November. He is No. 3 overall in Division I in assists per game. The NCAA leader, Ja Morant of Murray State, is averaging 10.7 a game through Sunday.
In Toews’ seventh game, he dished out a career-high 14 assists against Eastern Illinois on Nov. 25. Since then, he’s handed out 10 assists twice (against East Carolina and Davidson) in back-to-back games after the Eastern Illinois showdown, while also registering 11-, 12- and 13-assist games.
Toews, who attended Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, for his junior and senior years, has set a high bar for himself and his team early in his college career.
UNCW coach C.B. McGrath is impressed with Toews’ team-first play and the confidence that his teammates have in him.
“Kai is so unselfish,” McGrath said. “He could have a wide-open layup and he’ll pitch it out to someone for a 3. That’s what he likes to do. He loves the assist. I have to encourage him to take the wide-open layup. I think it gives the guys around him the confidence that he believes in them and has confidence that they’re going to knock down the shot.”
The Seahawks (7-13) are having an up-and-down season, including a six-game losing streak in December. Above all, it’s been a valuable learning experience in the early stages for Toews and his teammates.
Teammate Devontae Cacok, a senior forward, recognizes the significance of the 188-cm Toews’ on-court impact, describing it as a “team thing” in a recent interview with the Wilmington StarNews.
“It’s a good thing to have,” Cacok told the newspaper, “especially him being so young, being a freshman and being able to do something like that, it’s impressive.”
For Toews, what’s been most enjoyable about his freshman year in college?
“As a student, I would say just being in college,” he said by phone from New York on Jan. 16, a day before the team’s road contest at Colonial Athletic Association rival Hofstra University on Long Island. “For a lot of freshman, college is the first time where a lot of them leave home and live on their own, but for me this would be my fourth year now living on my own since I left home. But being in college on a bigger campus with more students has been great for me because I love meeting new people … and just getting to know people that are in my class or people who support our team has been great.
“And as a player, I would say the most enjoyable thing is just being able to play against such good competition.” Toews cited high-caliber opponents like Stanford, Clemson and North Carolina.
In addition to his aforementioned passing numbers, the 18-year-old Toews is averaging a respectable 7.4 points per game. And with 153 assists and 73 turnovers to date, a goal of cutting down on giveaways is an appropriate objective.
“It helps to have your point guard have a great assist-turnover ratio,” McGrath commented. “College basketball is a lot different than high school basketball. He’s faced a lot of different styles and players that he’s starting to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We’re just looking for him to keep building on his confidence.”
Indeed, confidence is an essential ingredient for success as a point guard.
Toews acknowledged that “I definitely had the confidence that I was going to come in and be in a leader type of role as a point guard right away.”
Which is why he insists that UNCW is a good fit for him.
“That was definitely my plan,” he said of being a key contributor as a freshman, ” and that’s also something that I thought about when I picked what school I was going to go to.”
As a first-year student at Tokyo’s Keihoku High School, Toews, whose mother is Japanese, was being recruited by Waseda University, Tokai University and the University of Tsukuba. But he had higher ambitions.
“I could already see myself playing at that level, and I kind of wanted something better,” he admitted.
Developing as a player
McGrath was a longtime assistant coach (2003-17) at the University of North Carolina under Roy Williams, including on three NCAA title-winning squads. His coaching acumen and approach to the game have helped Toews make the jump from high school to college. This includes “letting me play through my mistakes,” confessed Toews, who’s playing a whisker under 30 minutes a game.
He added: “Coach McGrath has always given me (room to grow), especially at first. He knew it would take time for me to adjust, but I think that he saw the potential and therefore he let me play through my turnovers or my bad games earlier in the season, and that’s what I’m most thankful for. I’ve never had to play the game looking over my shoulder. I’ve never had to think about ‘if I make this mistake, I’m coming out.’ ”
Toews also credited Seahawks assistant Jackie Manuel, a former star forward for the now-defunct bj-league club Miyazaki Shining Suns, for helping him learn the finer points of “defending on the ball and off the ball; little tweaks here and there.” Fellow assistant Doug Esleeck has tutored Toews on pick-and-roll techniques, “sometimes watching film twice a day — just pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll.”
That crash course in pick-and-roll tactics is a big part of Toews’ maturation as a freshman. And it’s produced tangible results.
Just ask Toews.
“(By) learning all the reading and trying to make it second nature to where I get in the game I can just make the quick decision right away,” he noted.
What’s more, McGrath, a Williams assistant on the Tar Heels’ 2005, 2009 and 2017 NCAA title-winning squads, presides over his team with authenticity; there’s no faking what he’s seen, experienced or learned.
Said Toews of McGrath, a former Jayhawks point guard under Williams: “He’s seen the best of the best, and therefore he knows exactly what he’s talking about.”
Video footage of Seahawks games shows Toews repeatedly zipping fast or feathery passes to his teammates, tossing high lobs and reading the defense to find holes to penetrate and generate scoring opportunities. For Toews, an explosive burst while moving with the ball and overall agility have helped make that happen.
“I’ve always been considered fast . . . so with the ball I just feel faster,” he said.
Toews is laser-focused on playing as best as he can, not on keeping track of stats.
“Honestly, during the game, I never have any idea how many I have,” he said.
But he mentioned that he is proud of the fact he’s in the top 10 in the national in assists and credited his teammates for making that possible.
“I’ve always thought that passing was my strength and something that set me apart from anybody else, but I had no idea that I would be among the top three, the top five,” Toews told The Japan Times. “But since a young age, I’ve always liked to pass and I’ve always felt joy from hooking teammates up.”
He is eager to demonstrate that he also has the ability to be recognized as an all-around player at the D-I level, including as a capable scorer.
At the same time, Toews continues to study the performances of former NBA great Steve Nash and current Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving, his two favorite point guards.
“I like Steve Nash because of his passing and obviously the way he reads the game,” Toews stated. “His whole game is just skill and reads. His athleticism is nowhere near the top of the NBA or was, but it was all based on change of pace and making reads. And that gives me confidence because it lets me know that your size or your athleticism doesn’t matter. You can work for that.”
Irving’s skill set inspires Toews for a different reason.
“His attack mentality,” Toews underlined, “the way he handles the ball and the way he finishes around the basket, I try to copy some of those (moves).”
Kai’s Canadian father, Burke Toews, commonly called “BT” in basketball circles in Japan, is a former pro basketball player in Canada and Germany. The elder Toews has guided or assisted on coaching staffs in the JBL2, WJBL and B. League and at the University of Winnipeg. He’s currently the head coach of the WJBL’s Fujitsu Red Wave.
Coach Toews guided his son’s path in basketball, leading him to where he now is. That influence can’t be overstated, according to Toews, who said he wasn’t forced to play the game as a kid.
“He laid the whole foundation for me. He’s definitely the most influential (person) in my career,” said Toews, who enjoyed playing soccer before gravitating to playground basketball more and more as a pre-teen.
“He’s taught me a lot of what I know,” added Toews, whose father plans to attend the CAA Championship in March to watch his son play in person for UNCW for the first time.
“Even today, after every game he’ll text me.”
Toews has played for Japan’s Under-15 and Under-19 national teams. He hopes to be selected to compete for Japan at the FIBA World Cup this summer in China. The team has not yet qualified. He admitted he hopes the 2019 FIBA World Cup can be a springboard for him to play for Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Asked if he feels he has a realistic shot at making Japan’s 2019 World Cup team, Toews offered this response: “I do.”
He continued: “We have a lot of good guards.” He cited Chiba Jets Funabashi standout Yuki Togashi, Kawasaki Brave Thunders veteran Ryusei Shinoyama and Toyama Grouses floor leader Naoki Uto as prime examples.
“But I just think I can bring something different,” he elaborated on his thoughts of making the Japan national team this year. “Every time I go back, I find how comfortable I am in that situation (team tryouts). . . . Last year, I personally thought that I was ready, not to go in and take anybody’s spot but to go in and at least compete. . . . I think this summer will be the year that I can do it.”
Why this summer?
“I also think that me, (Gonzaga University junior Rui) Hachimura and (Memphis Grizlies/Memphis Hustle rookie forward Yuta) Watanabe are playing at the highest level,” Toews concluded. “Division I basketball is, I think, a higher level than the B. League. I just think playing against that kind of competition every day just makes things not easier, but you learn a lot from that, and that gives a player maybe more experience than other leagues, I would say. . .
“That makes me feel like I’m prepared to play for the national team.”