After losing 41 of 60 games last season under former head coach Kohei Eto, the Kagawa Five Arrows have made positive strides this season under new leadership.
While adjusting to the arrival of new coach Paul Henare in late November, two months after the season began and with 17 games already played (12-5 start), the B. League second-division team established a new identity under the former New Zealand national team bench boss.
Team director Hiromichi Tsuda, 76, filled in as an interim coach before Henare’s arrival. Eto was dismissed in the offseason due to power harassment issues.
Henare approached his new job with an open mind and an eagerness to learn how successful teams operate in the B. League.
“My No. 1 goal was to come in and just be who I am while at the same time learning and understanding the environment around me in terms of the Japanese culture, Japanese style of play and how things are done in the league,” Henare told The Japan Times last week.
“I think it was important that I come in and not speak like I know everything in the world,” the 40-year-old native of Napier, New Zealand, added, stating that “it was a situation where you do have to come in and have an understanding of the people first before you can get the basketball side of things right.”
Asked to pinpoint the Five Arrows’ biggest strength, Henare offered this view: “Team chemistry, our bond, our togetherness. It’s the biggest thing I’ve picked up on right away with this team.”
Henare received a three-year contract to lead Kagawa. Now, he’s tasked with guiding the club, which is under new ownership, to its intended target: promotion to B1 within the next few years.
In his first few months at the helm, Henare witnessed the extraordinary skills of Terrance Woodbury, until the veteran swingman sustained a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee in a game against the Nishinomiya Storks on Feb. 2.
Before the knee injuries, Woodbury, 32, was having an MVP-caliber season, leading the second division in scoring (32.0 points per game) along with 8.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals in 35 games. His shooting numbers were impressive, too — 54.9 percent from the field, 41.8 percent from 3-point range and 85.5 percent at the free-throw line.
The 203-cm Woodbury scored 40 or more points six times, including two 45-point performances. He also had a pair of triple-doubles with 40 or more points.
The Five Arrows (26-17, second in the West Division behind the 36-7 Hiroshima Dragonflies) have had to recalibrate without Woodbury’s powerful presence in the lineup.
Henare, who spent 17 combined seasons as a New Zealand national team player, assistant coach and head coach, acknowledged it’s been a challenge to redirect the team since Woodbury went down.
“It was really disappointing for him and the team,” Henare, who led the Tall Blacks for four years before stepping down in October, said. Henare also served as an assistant for the Australian NBL’s Melbourne United last season.
The coach added: “I’m not going to lie. It’s a dramatic change and a big loss for us. We are not the biggest team anyway and not that Terrance was a really big body, but we became even smaller. . . . We just have to change things the way we do things, and we have to do them extremely well.”
How vital was Woodbury, in his second season with the Five Arrows, to their turnaround?
“Obviously, what you see in terms the scoring, and not just the scoring but the variety of ways that he can score like shooting the 3-ball exceptionally well, create off the dribble, can post up smaller bodies, and also did a great job getting himself to the free-throw line as well (297 attempts),” Henare said.
“…Obviously we miss that on the floor, but one of the things we miss most about him is his leadership and being a really good teammate and good person for everyone else. The importance of foreigners coming over. Accepting and fitting into the Japanese culture is really important. I think he does that really, really well.”
In addition to Woodbury, whose pro career has included stints with the Ryukyu Golden Kings, Shiga Lakestars, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (now known as the San-en NeoPhoenix), Bambitious Nara and Kumamoto Volters, big man Kevin Kotzur and backcourt standout Takayuki Kodama are among the team’s primary building blocks.
Kotzur has spent the majority of his pro career in Japan. After suiting up for the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Development League (now called the NBA G League) in the 2013-14 campaign, the 202-cm Kotzur played for the Kyoto Hannaryz (2014-17), Hiroshima Dragonflies (2017-18), Aisin AW Areions Anjo (2018-19) in the bj-league and B. League eras before joining Kagawa before this season.
The NCAA Division II St. Mary’s (Texas) University product delivered a 27-point, 28-rebound, nine assist outing against the Fukushima Firebonds last Saturday. Kotzur made 12 of 15 shots from the floor in the Five Arrows’ 90-81 home victory. Kodama scored 28 points and converted 13 of his 18 shots.
The Five Arrows lost Sunday’s rematch 71-66, and now look to regroup to for this weekend’s series at Hiroshima.
Kotzur is the B2’s leading rebounder (15.0). He’s also No. 9 in blocked shots (0.74).
With Kotzur leading the way, the Five Arrows are one of the best rebounding clubs in the second division. They are No. 4 overall (39.7 per contest).
“He’s great,” Henare said. “Similar to what I spoke about with Terrance, obviously the advantage those guys have of playing here a few years is (big). … Kotzur is very experienced, he knows how to play and he knows who he is as a player, so it’s been really fun coaching him.”
Team captain Kodama, a 27-year-old point guard, is one of B2’s most consistent playmakers. He’s averaging 10.6 points and 4.8 assists (No. 6 in the second division).
“The import players help with team chemistry, but he’s our real driver of that,” Henare said of Kodama.
“When he speaks, everyone listens,” the coach observed, citing his initial impressions of the captain, “and that’s really impressive because he’s really still a young guy. I was really impressed with just the fact that he had the team’s ear and the team’s attention whenever he spoke and I think that comes through the work he does away from the team, like the work ethic that he has, the time that he puts into improving his game and talking to people on the floor as well, I think he’s done a fantastic job of that.”
Other key contributors include Kanji Takahira (9.0 ppg), Mizuki Abe (7.9) and Takuro Tsukuba (7.2).
The Five Arrows are one of eight B2 teams with winning records through Sunday. The others: Ehime Orange Vikings (23-20), Ibaraki Robots (25-18), Nishinomiya (28-15), Gunma Crane Thunders (30-13), Sendai 89ers (33-10), Hiroshima and Shinsu Brave Warriors (36-7).
Henare confirmed that he believes he’s adjusted to living in Japan and also gotten acclimated to the B. League’s level and style of play.
As a result, Henare said he’s been pleased with the Five Arrows’ overall results.
“I feel like I have a really good feel about those things,” he said of the cultural and basketball adjustments, “and I think it’s beginning to pay dividends and helped me become a better coach over here.”