The start of the 2023-24 B.League season is finally here ― Thursday, October 5. With the Shiga Lakes and Niigata Albirex BB relegated to B2 (second division), the spotlight shines on two newcomers to B1, the Nagasaki Velca and Saga Ballooners.
In this two-part preview, we'll dive into these fresh additions to the league, starting with the Velca.
During the 2022-23 season, if we were to define a theme for the Velca, it would undoubtedly be "second."
The Velca claimed the second position in their division during the regular season but narrowly fell short in the championship round. In the B2 Finals, the Ballooners emerged victorious, winning by eight- and four-point margins over the Velca in May 2023.
However, it's crucial to emphasize that this second place does not diminish their remarkable success.
Nagasaki, one of the newest entrants into the B.League, embarked on its professional basketball journey in 2020, becoming the first pro basketball team in Nagasaki Prefecture. The club's official launch took place on July 10, and Nagasaki commenced its journey into B3 in the 2021–22 season.
In their debut season, the Velca demonstrated their prowess by amassing an impressive record of 42 wins and just three losses, achieving a remarkable .933 winning percentage. This outstanding performance earned them the title of B3 champions and a promotion to B2.
It's worth noting that during this period, the team was under the guidance of Takuma Ito, now 41, who currently serves as the general manager.
In a May 2022 interview with SportsLook editor Ed Odeven, Ito discussed the team's building blocks for success.
"We emphasize on attacking the basket," Ito said at the time. "Our style of play, we use five words to describe our style of play: hard, aggressive, speed, innovative and together."
Getting to Know Velca Head Coach Maeda
Nagasaki head coach Kenjiro Maeda, is embarking on his second season with the team. His coaching journey has been marked by his association with successful and winning organizations.
Early in his career, the 33-year-old Maeda served as an assistant coach with the Alvark Tokyo (known as Toyota Alvark before the B.League launch in 2016) from 2015-18.
Ito was Tokyo's bench boss from 2015-17. During this period, the Alvark made a significant impact in the B.League, reaching the semifinals in the inaugural 2016-17 season and winning the first of back-to-back championships the following year under Ito's replacement, Luka Pavicevic.
Maeda's coaching journey extended internationally when he took on the role of assistant coach for the Australian NBL's Melbourne United. In his tenure there, Melbourne United secured a commendable second-place finish during the regular season and advanced to the playoffs.
In 2019, Maeda returned to the B.League as the head coach for the Akita Northern Happinets, a position he held for two seasons. Despite improving the team's winning percentage, his first season in 2019 faced disruptions due to the pandemic, and the team missed reaching the postseason both years.
Maeda's most recent venture brought him to Nagasaki in 2022, marking a reunion with Ito. Under his guidance, the Velca enjoyed a successful campaign, earning promotion to B1. With Maeda's coaching experience and acumen, Nagasaki looks forward to building on its past achievements this season.
Maeda Shares Team Goals
In June 2023, Maeda extended his contract with the Velca, reaffirming his role as the head coach. During this announcement, he also shared his aspirations and objectives for the upcoming season.
"Since its inception, Nagasaki Velca has been guided by the club's principles: 'Elevate Nagasaki through basketball,' 'spread the joy of living in the present,' and 'convey messages of peace.' " Maeda said. "In the upcoming 2023-24 season, we aim to strengthen the Velca's unity even further and showcase the 'HAS IT' Velca style, evolving it to new heights on the B1 stage. Let's come together as 'One Nagasaki' and create a whirlwind of excitement!"
A Primer on Nagasaki's Roster
The Velca boast a youthful and high-paced core, and this defined their identity in the 2022-23 campaign. They dominated in B2, leading the second flight in three key categories: points per game (89.7), assists (25.3) and steals (9.1). This young squad's energetic style of play promises an exciting season ahead.
A recent addition to the team, Yudai Baba, brings invaluable international experience with past stints in the Australian NBL and the NBA G League, as well as contributions to the Japanese national team. Baba's presence is poised to be a vital asset to the burgeoning success of the team.
Another name that will undoubtedly resonate throughout the season is Matt Bonds. The 27-year-old forward led B2 in scoring (22.5 points per game) in 2022-23 and also showcased his defensive prowess with 2.1 steals per game.
Beyond scoring, Bonds was an all-around force on the court, ranking in the top five in assists (4.4 apg, fourth overall) and rebounds (10.6, fifth). Bonds was named the B2 regular-season MVP.
Additional Notes on the Velca Roster
In a significant signing in July 2023, Nick Perkins makes a notable return to Japan, following a successful three-year stint in Italy's Serie A. The 27-year-old Perkins brings scoring versatility that is sure to add a new dimension to the Velca's offense. A University of Buffalo alum, he starred for the Albirex in the 2019-20 campaign.
Perkins excels in mid-range shooting and presents a tough challenge for defenders when he positions himself in the low post. His keen court awareness is an asset to the Velca, as it generates open 3-point opportunities on the perimeter. This spacing of the court contributes significantly to the team's offensive efficiency, with the Velca's wings ready to capitalize on his passes.
Other notable players include veteran point guard Masaya Karimata, 35, renowned for his exceptional 3-point shooting skills. He was No 1 in B2 from beyond the arc (40.8%) this past season.
In August 2023, the team welcomed power forward Jarrell Brantley, 27, who brings valuable international experience from both the NBA (Utah Jazz) and Australia's NBL, adding versatility to the Velca lineup.
Masaaki Morikawa is known for his exceptional shooting accuracy from close range. Exhibit A: He had a field-goal percentage of more than 71% in the paint in 2022-23.
Morikawa joined the Velca in June 2023 after a standout season with the Yokohama B-Corsairs, when the 31-year-old guard averaged 7.6 points in 50 games.
Additionally, guard Kenji Leon Matsumoto, 29, a key presence since the team's inception, excels in pushing the pace and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, providing valuable experience and leadership.
Key Matches for the Velca
"The Runners-Up of B1 and B2"
October 8-9: Velca vs the visiting Chiba Jets. The opening weekend pits the Velca against a challenging opponent, a team that won 53 of 60 regular-season games and finished as the championship runners-up to the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the B.League Finals.
December 6 (away) vs the Saga Ballooners. This matchup rekindles the rivalry, as two teams from neighboring prefectures in the Kyushu region, both top performers in B2 last season, clash for the first time in B1.
Author: Galileo Ferrari