Basketball / NBA

NBA program helps foster young Asian talent

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

With scorching heat enveloping Tokyo last week, the Basketball Without Borders Asia Camp provided heated competition inside the air-conditioned facilities at Mizumoto General Sports Center.

For four days, the NBA and FIBA joint operation staged a testing ground for 64 top-level boys and girls players ages 16 and 17 from the Asia-Pacific Region. Intense, high-energy five-on-five games were held each day.

The 11th edition of the BWB Asia Camp wrapped up Saturday afternoon, with a pair of All-Star games, boys and girls 3-point contests and championship tilts in each division. Teams had WNBA names in the girls division and NBA names in the boys division, with the New York Liberty and Orlando Magic, respectively, capturing titles over the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Tight defense and run-and-gun offensive sets were on display during Saturday’s final hours of competition before the awards ceremony in the capital city’s Katsushika Ward.

Earnest practice was another staple of the morning hours.

At around 11:30 a.m., China’s Zhang Liwen was working on his 3-point shooting skills, firing up a few shots from various spots around the perimeter, moving from the right corner to the left corner. Then there was Amaan Sandhu of India repeating the rapid-fire drill after Zhang finished taking his shots.

Throughout the spacious gym, big smiles were on display, an indication of camp participants’ enjoyment and love for the game, which, of course, they shared with camp instructors. This wasn’t a do-or-die Game 7 playoff series; it was, however, four days of intense competition.

During the final day of games, impressive individual skills were also showcased. For instance, South Korea’s Yeo Jun-seok, one of the West All-Stars, grabbed the ball after the opening tipoff against the East All-Stars and threw down a powerful slam dunk to the visible delight of his teammates. Moments later, Australia’s Patrick Ryan, Yeo’s All-Star teammate, made a steal and displayed nifty dribbling en route to completing a layup. Mongolia’s Enkhiin-Od “Michael” Sharavjamts, another West All-Star, stuffed the ball through the net in traffic.

After the camp wrapped up, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell said that events like Basketball Without Borders are vital to growing the game around the world.

“It’s awesome,” Cassell, who has served on Clippers bench boss Doc Rivers’ staff since 2014, told The Japan Times. “This is my first time with the BWB, and to come in here to Japan and see all these talented players. The game of basketball is in good hands, because there’s so much talent around the globe.”

He added: “I never thought there’d be this much talent this far across the water from the (United) States, and coming to Japan and seeing all these kids coming from all over the place — the Philippines, (South) Korea, Vietnam. . . . It’s amazing to see all these guys that come over here to participate. It’s awesome.

“One day of practice and performing the way they perform, it’s awesome just to see.”

Another benefit of the camp is the impact it will have on the attendees when they compete in their respective nations, according to Cassell, a former point guard who won back-to-back NBA titles with the Houston Rockets (1994 and ’95) and another with the Boston Celtics in 2008.

“No doubt about it,” Cassell said. “Now they can tell a kid, like from Australia can tell another kid, that I played with this kid from New Zealand who was awesome. One day he’s going to be a top college player like myself one day, so that is amazing to see. A kid from Australia is telling his friend that I played with this big guy named Amaan, (a 208-cm center), from India who’s a beast out there on the basketball court. That’s amazing. I wish I had that opportunity as a kid to do that — play against someone from different countries.”

Indeed, among the players exhibiting a high level of confidence in their skills were Japanese representatives Maho Hayashi, Miyu Ogita and Aika Hirashita, all forwards, on the girls side, and boys participants Yu Kibayashi and Yuto Richard Yamanouchi (power forwards), point guard Atsuya Ogawa and guards Masahiro Waki and Kaine Roberts.

Promising prospect Roberts, a 188-cm playmaker born to an American father and Japanese mother, displayed flashy dribbling skills and agility throughout the final day’s activities, driving baseline at one point and rifling a kick-out pass back to the top of the perimeter to a teammate during the All-Star contest. Roberts is transferring to Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, for his senior year. He previously attended Kinnick High School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Upon being named an All-Star, the recognition humbled Roberts.

“It’s an honor to be able to play on an All-Star team, especially in a camp this big for the NBA Basketball Without Borders” said Roberts, who was named the camp’s Boys Grit Award recipient. “Coming in, I didn’t really think I was going to be on the All-Star team or get selected for this great award, but I proved myself to the coaches and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

An opportunity that Roberts, who has received interest from Northern Arizona University and Bucknell University, among other NCAA Division I schools, wanted to capitalize on by showcasing his talents.

“My coaches told me from the start that they see potential in me, and so they want me to be on the court and get my teammates better at the same time,” he told The Japan Times. “So when I was on the court, I passed, I scored. I did what I needed to do on the court to get my teammates better and get myself better and get the “W,’ the win.”

Roberts has lofty goals for his senior season, achieving a 3.5 GPA or higher, as well as attracting more scholarships, including from “Pac-12 top schools now that I’ve got my name out there more.”

Golden State Warriors forward/center Kevon Looney took time out of his leisurely summer to work at the BWB Asia Camp. The former UCLA Bruin, who competed in back-to-back NBA Finals in the past two seasons, admitted he was glad that he did. It brought him joy.

Why?

“Just seeing all the campers get better each and every day,” the 23-year-old Looney said. “Seeing different talent from different parts of the world, seeing them come together and have fun and build relationships with each other was great to see, and also me just being here and learning from all the different coaches here, learn new drills and learn new skill sets, it’s been a lot of fun for me. It’s something I can take back home and work on my game.”

Away from the individual and team drills, Looney was grateful he had the chance to study the game during his trek to Tokyo. As Friday’s coaching clinic opened his eyes about the different ways the game is taught around the world.

Or as he put it: “That was a lot of fun to see . . . to see them working and help other coaches from the different parts of the world and see them come together and the different styles of play. . . . Just sitting on the bench with them guys and going through the drills and being able to go to dinner with these coaches and pick their brains and see what they see in players has been helpful for me.”

And what words of advice did Looney give to the BWB players?

“I always tell them about confidence,” he said. “Basketball is really about confidence out there. Of course hard work and talent are (essential), but having the confidence and being able to handle adversity and making the right decisions is something I talked about when we had a little seminar talking to the players.

“To make it to the NBA,” he added, “you have to believe in yourself, and nobody else can believe for you. And I believe these kids showed they have confidence in themselves and they came out here representing their own country and went out there and played well.”

Like Cassell, Looney and Roberts, Milwaukee Bucks rugged 213-cm center Robin Lopez, who joined his twin brother Brook on the team’s roster this offseason, expressed excitement about the camp’s whirlwind schedule and productive training sessions.

“Oh, it was wonderful,” Lopez, one of the camp instructors, said. “You know, a few days, three days, four days, can be kind of a short time to make some kind of impact, but everybody here, all the kids especially, they were so fantastic to hang out with. I’ve made a lot of great relationships and I’m very thankful for that.”

Did the chance to teach and be a mentor to potential future NBA and WNBA players fire up the Stanford University product for the upcoming season?

“Without question,” Lopez declared. “It’s always interesting to see things from another point of view, and that’s what we’re essentially doing here. We’re exchanging point of views. So I think that’s very beneficial for any of us as a person.”

In the paint

The following countries were represented by the aforementioned 64 players during the camp: Australia, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

NBA assistant coaches who worked as BWB team coaches included Antonio Lang (Cleveland Cavaliers), Pat Delany (Orlando Magic), Wes Unseld Jr. (Denver Nuggets) and Bryan Gates (Minnesota Timberwolves). Other guidance came from Cassell, current NBA players Looney and Lopez and ex-Phoenix Suns guard Yuta Tabuse, a veteran floor leader for the B. League’s Utsunomiya Brex.

Ex-WNBA players Yolanda Moore, Allison Feaster and Ashley also provided instruction and pointers for players. In addition, Australian Patrick Hunt, the president of the World Association of Basketball Coaches, served as camp director. Jeff Tanaka, who’s employed by the Chicago Bulls, worked as athletic trainer during the camp. . . . Troy Justice, the NBA’s associate vice president, basketball operations (international) was in town to preside over the activities, too.

At the conclusion of the fourth and final day of the camp, several awards were issued. Boys Grit Award: Kaine Roberts (Japan); Girls Grit Award: Emilia Shearer (New Zealand), Boys 3-Point Champion: Mustafa Rashed (Bahrain); Girls 3-Point Champion: Miyu Ogita (Japan); Boys All-Star Game MVP: Harold Alarcon (Philippines); Girls All-Star Game MVP: Maho Hayashi (Japan); Boys Camp MVP: Yeo Jun-seok (South Korea); and Girls Camp MVP: Georgia Woolley (Australia).

Washington Wizards rookie forward Rui Hachimura, a 2016 BWB Global Camp participant in Toronto, visited the camp last Friday, interacting with the players and camp staff. The former Gonzaga University star and Toyama native also observed the day’s youth clinic, which included 96 additional younger players.

Hachimura’s appearance at the camp inspired Roberts.

“Hearing that somebody like me and my nationality became big in a camp like this kind of pushes me to get better as a player and possibly be in his footsteps,” Roberts said.

The previous BWB Camp in Japan was held in the summer of 2012.

Impressions of Doc

After five seasons working under Rivers, Cassell has a keen understanding of the sideline supervisor’s mannerisms and methods.

Cassell, a Florida State alum, described Rivers’ coaching style this way: “Well, Doc is a hands-on coach. He gives his assistant coaches a lot of freedom. He don’t wanna be the only voice in the gym, so he depends on his assistant coaches a lot. He takes our advice all the time, but it’s his ultimate decision in terms of playing time, who should play, who shouldn’t play, but he really respects our opinion as a coach.

Expectations for Warriors

While some NBA pundits are predicting a drop-off for Golden State in post-Kevin Durant era, Looney, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.2 boards per game in 80 games (24 starts) in the 2018-19 campaign, believes the team has the talent and experience to contend for a title once again.

“My hopes and aspirations for our team doesn’t change,” the Milwaukee native said. “We all want to win the championship. We’ve still got Steph (Curry), we’ve still got Klay (Thompson) and we’ve got Draymond (Green) coming back. We’ve added D’Angelo Russell, so I still feel we have enough talent to win a championship. We added (former Sacramento Kings standout) Willie Cauley-Stein and all the young guys on our team on the bench. It’s going to be a lot of fun, a new arena. It’s going to be a different team, but it’s going to be a great season.

“I feel like we are being looked at as underdogs and I know that Draymond and them guys they love to have that chip on their shoulder, and extra motivation I think will help us fuel us for the next season.”

Words of inspiration

“If you don’t hear your name today, don’t be discouraged. Be motivated to go home and work and work and work,” an NBA representative said after the award winners’ names were revealed at the conclusion of the camp.

The last word

The competition was good, no question about it, but I saw a lot of very skilled players. What I loved seeing was how well everybody moved around the floor, moved without the ball. I saw some great basketball this week.” — Lopez, summing up the 2019 BWB Asia Camp.

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