Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Sunrockers continue to make progress under coach Tsutomu Isa in second year at helm

Sunday’s game provided ample evidence of the growth and potential of the Sunrockers Shibuya under Tsutomu Isa, who became head coach in October 2018 after the team opened last season with a 1-7 record.

In a rare display of an entire team producing offensive numbers in the first half — all 12 dressed players recorded a point or an assist (or both) — the Sunrockers steamrolled past the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins 96-77 in their final game of the year. Now, they take a promising outlook into the 2020 portion of their schedule.

It all starts with Isa’s steady, capable leadership.

Small forward Yusei Sugiura said Isa instills confidence in his players.

Sugiura commented on Sunday about his mentor’s effective communication skills, stating that it is his top trait as a coach. For example, he pointed out that Isa delivers constructive criticism of players in a calm manner during one-on-one discussions at practice. But at times the coach also raises his voice to make an important point, Sugiura said.

While speaking to the players during timeouts and in team meetings, Isa is always focused on game-plan details.

As a result, “the players’ confidence has grown under Isa,” observed Sugiura, who’s averaging 6.4 points in mostly a backup role (four starts in 25 games). “He gets his message across.”

Since the Sunrockers’ aforementioned poor start last season, Shibuya has steadily developed a more cohesive unit. The Sunrockers finished last season with a 27-33 record. Now, they are in third place in the East Division with a 17-9 record, including 10-4 at home.

Isa, who piloted the Ryukyu Golden Kings to a pair of bj-league titles (2013-14, 2015-16) in his previous head coaching gig, said on Sunday that he’s closely followed the Golden State Warriors in recent years.

The Okinawa native, who turned 50 on Nov. 2, told reporters that he likes the Warriors’ emphasis on 3-point shooting and Steve Kerr’s free-flowing offense.

“I’ve studied film of their games many times,” Isa noted. “I like how they move the ball, and how they pressure (opponents) on defense.”

Indeed, the current Sunrockers squad has adapted Golden State’s style in some noticeable ways. For instance, Shibuya leads the 18-team first division in scoring (85.3 points per game) and steals (9.3), while tied for second in 3-pointers per game (9.4).

Shibuya guard Leo Vendrame and Alvark Tokyo dynamo Daiki Tanaka are tied for sixth in the circuit in assists (5.1). Vendrame, a fifth-year pro, is No. 1 in steals (2.0) and is a dependable scorer (12.0 ppg). The Shibuya bench is deep and plays with fierce determination and energy, as exemplified by guard Morihisa Yamauchi (5.4 points, 3.4 assists) and his aggressive approach at both ends of the floor.

Frontcourt productivity is another strength of this team, with newcomers Sebastian Saiz (19.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 17 games) and Charles Jackson (17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds in 17 games) working well alongside former Los Angeles Lakers forward Ryan Kelly, a Duke University product and son-in-law of ex-Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

The 211-cm Kelly helps stretch the defense with his 3-point shooting skills. He’s made three or more 3s in 10 games this season, and is averaging 22.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. On Sunday, Kelly poured in 27 points against the Diamond Dolphins, connecting on 5 of 7 from beyond the arc.

After the Sunrockers completed their weekend sweep of the Diamond Dolphins, Kelly said his team had steered itself in the right direction again after a stretch of four straight defeats.

“We felt like as a team we underperformed and were outworked, and that’s what you can’t have,” he said. “You can’t be outworked. From the start of both of these games this weekend, we played really hard, and that has to be our identity.”

With Saiz and Jackson enjoying productive seasons, Kelly recognizes how important his frontcourt mates are for the team’s overall success.

“They’ve been huge for us,” Kelly said. “And obviously we are doing things a little differently this year with rotating our bigs, and both of them have been tremendously productive, but also their energy level — rebounding, hitting the offensive boards — and that’s not something that I would say is my strong suit.

“So I think that allows us to play off each other really well. I enjoying playing with them. . . . These guys have done an amazing job filling in, and their defensive energy and their ability to move their feet. They’ve stepped in from day one and been out to prove, obviously, that they’re really good players, and when you have that mindset but also are team-first guys, it’s easy to play with them.”

As the season progresses, it’s clear that the Sunrockers have developed solid team chemistry. Part of that stems from Vendrame’s new role as captain. Isa appointed him for the leadership post before the season “and believe me there was no argument from anybody,” Kelly recalled. “We saw Leo as a leader for us and somebody that’s been with the team and organization for a while now and knows what it takes to win.”

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