Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg and his staff believe Japanese phenom Keisei Tominaga will be a difference-maker for the Cornhuskers next year.
The Big Ten school announced last week that Tominaga, a sophomore at Ranger College, has signed a National Letter of Intent to join the team in the 2021-22 season. The 188-cm guard will attend Nebraska on a full scholarship.
Hoiberg introduced the 19-year-old as the “Japanese Steph Curry,” a sign of his confidence Tominaga will make a splash in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I’m really excited about Keisei, and he’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen,” Hoiberg told the Japan Times in a Zoom interview last week. “Where I was able to go watch him last year, he was unbelievably efficient and whenever the ball leaves his hands, you think it’s going in. He’s that kind of a shooter.”
Tominaga, who verbally committed to transferring to Nebraska last fall, played for Ranger, which is located in Texas and is one of the nation’s top junior college programs, during the 2019-20 season.
He averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 47.9% from 3-point range in his first year in the U.S., helping his school to a 28-3 record and No. 2 finish in the NJCAA national rankings.
Hoiberg, who was a shooter of some renown himself and played for the Chicago Bulls, among other NBA teams, during his career, said 3-point shooting is one of the foundational elements of his program. The 48-year-old, who took the Nebraska job last year and has been the head coach at Iowa State University and in the NBA with the Bulls, is thrilled to have added a shooter like Tominaga, who can hit shots from long range and stretch the floor, to his team.
“Defenses don’t leave him, and he still has the ability to get his shots off, even though he’s the focal point for a lot of defenses,” said Hoiberg, a Lincoln native who led the NBA with a 48.3 3-point percentage in the 2004-05 season. “So it’s really impressive to see how productive he is, as much attention as he draws. He’s always going to get the best defender because of how well he shoots the ball.”
Matt Abdelmassih led the recruiting process for Tominaga. Before joining the Huskers as Hoiberg’s assistant, Abdelmassih served as an assistant coach at St. Johns, his alma mater.
Abdelmassih was still with the Red Storm when he first heard about Tominaga from Torsten Loibl, who had coached the Japanese guard with the Japan U-18 national team. Loibl told Abdelmassih Tominaga reminded him of Chris Mullin, the former NBA shooting star and Hall of Famer who was the St. John’s head coach at the time.
“He’s like, ‘You guys are wasting your time. I think this kid can play,” Abdelmassih said, recalling an email from the German about Tominaga, who, like Mullin, is left-handed.
While Tominaga wound up beginning his career in the U.S. at Ranger, Abdelmassih and Loibl kept in touch and that connection helped steer Tominaga to Nebraska.
“Once Matt changed to Nebraska, he contacted me again,” Loibl said. “And I told Keisei it would be an awesome opportunity and a top offer which might not come again. So I am glad he took it.”
Abdelmassih didn’t sign Tominaga based solely on Loibl’s suggestion. The Nebraska assistant checked out Tominaga himself and was impressed with his ability. He added the Huskers were “fortunate enough to get him to commit” before the COVID-19 pandemic made it much harder for teams to recruit.
Abdelmassih, regarded as one of the top young recruiters in the country, echoed Hoiberg’s sentiment about Tominaga, saying “there’s not people in the United States that shoot the ball like him.”
Hoiberg and Abdelmassih were also swayed by Tominaga’s tough-minded demeanor on the court.
Abdelmassih said many players who come to the U.S. from overseas “hit a rough patch when they struggle,” but added that has not been the case with Tominaga.
“There wasn’t one point last year where he struggled,” Abdelmassih said. “I mean, he had as good of a freshman year you can have here in the country and the one attribute that I feel like he has is his toughness. He’s not going to back down from any challenge or back down from guarding someone or just anything that comes his way. And that’s a heck of a quality to have, especially when there’s a lot of changes that he’s going to go through as a person moving to a completely different place.”
As Abdelmassih put it, Tominaga will be in a totally new environment next year in Nebraska’s state capital, where he’ll take the floor at 15,000-plus-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena. Tominaga will also receive top-notch support at the school, which is home to the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, which provides athletes with an objective, scientific approach.
Despite having the worst record in the Big Ten at 7-25, the Huskers drew 15,605 fans per game, which ranked 11th in the country last season.
“We think it’s the best conference in all of college basketball and it’s a big jump for him,” Hoiberg said of the Big Ten, which is loaded with big-name programs like Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland and Ohio State. “But he’s played on a big stage, so like Matt said, he’s not going to back down from a challenge. It is a big jump, there is no doubt about it. He’s going to be playing against bigger, stronger players. But I think it’ll be a very easy transition for him.”
Tominaga isn’t resting on his laurels just because he signed with a Power Five conference program. He still has aspirations to reach the NBA and follow the path of Rui Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe and Yuta Tabuse.
Although Hoiberg compared Tominaga to Curry after he signed, he probably only meant it as a quick and easy way to describe the young Japanese player. Hoiberg, who was the Co-Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2012 while at Iowa State, said Tominaga is his own person and it’s unfair to compare him with someone who has reached the highest levels.
“Here’s Keisei’s chance,” said Hoiberg, whose older brother Steve once lived in Nagoya, where Tominaga is from. “You look at the NBA right now. Everything’s about analytics and the way he can shoot the 3-point shots at the percentage that he shoots with, that will put him on the radar of NBA scouts.
“Because of his shooting ability, what NBA teams are looking for right now, you need floor spacers, you’ve got great playmakers. When you look at LeBron James leading the NBA in assists, at 6-8 (203 cm), 260 pounds (118 kg), he can get by guys and you need people to be able to shoot and space the floor so that’s where guys like Keisei that can make shots at a high level come into play. So he’ll definitely have chances. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
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