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From B2 to B1: Saga Ballooners Rising to the Challenge for 2023-24

After capturing the B.League second-division title in the 2022-23 season, the Saga Ballooners seek to build off their past success.

The start of the 2023-24 B.League season is finally upon us ― 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. We started with the Velca, and now turn our attention to the Ballooners.

The Road to B1

Founded in 2018, the Saga Ballooners marked their inception five years ago. The team welcomed former NBA champion and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Sasha Vujacic as their ambassador, with his brother Al Bjekovic taking on the dual role of player and head coach.

Their journey began in a corporate league, and eligibility for promotion to the B.League hinged on several criteria, including performance in the corporate league and the team's operational setup.

After meeting all necessary conditions, the Ballooners made their entry into the B.League's third division (B3) in 2019.

Following this transition, Bjekovic stepped down from his role as player-coach, paving the way for the appointment of Luis Guil, a former assistant coach for the Spain national team, as the new head coach.

In their inaugural season, the Ballooners faced an initial setback with a loss in their opening game. However, they quickly rebounded, showcasing their resilience with an impressive eight-game winning streak.

Despite a brief dip in the standings that saw them fall to seventh place, they launched a strong resurgence in December, achieving not one but two remarkable winning streaks of 10 and 11 games.

By February 2020, they had ascended to the top spot in the standings with 30 wins and 10 losses, a position they held until a league game was canceled on March 27 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, their outstanding performance throughout the season earned them the B3 championship title, and promotion to B2.

Coach Guil acknowledged the achievement of the club, "I want to congratulate my players and staff for this unbelievable goal. It’s the result of a lot of hard work during many months. Thanks to all for the commitment that made us get 21 victories out of the 22 last games to reach the first position."

In their initial two seasons in B2, the Ballooners displayed promise during the regular seasons, finishing in sixth and seventh place overall. However, their playoff campaigns ended prematurely on both occasions as they exited in the first round.

The 2022-23 season proved to be a remarkable turning point for the Ballooners. They executed a stunning transformation, securing the top position in the Western Division and jointly holding the second place overall in the regular season standings with an impressive record of 45-15. During the postseason, their performance soared to unprecedented levels as they emerged as the undefeated B2 champions. They clinched victory in the finals against their neighboring team, the Nagasaki Velca. This achievement marked their historic promotion to B1, a first in the franchise's history.

Saga Ballooners
Saga Ballooners head coach Yuta Miyanaga (B.LEAGUE)

Getting to Know Ballooners Head Coach Miyanaga

Yuta Miyanaga, a former professional basketball player and coach, embarked on his career journey in the sport. As a student-athlete, he showcased his talent at various levels, from junior high to university.

Miyanaga transitioned to the professional league, playing for teams like the Link Tochigi Brex (currently the Utsunomiya Brex) and the Chiba Jets. During his career, he also took on the role of player-assistant coach and contributed to the Toyama Grouses.

After retiring as a player in 2018, he continued his involvement in basketball as an assistant coach for the Fujitsu Red Wave in the Women's Japan Basketball League (aka WJBL). In 2020, Miyanaga became the head coach of the Levanga Hokkaido and later took on the role of head coach and general manager for the Saga Ballooners in 2021. Earlier this year, Miyanaga re-signed with the Ballooners.

Ballooners playmaker Reynaldo Garcia averaged 20.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the opening round of the B2 playoffs in the 2022-23 season. (B.LEAGUE)
It's just a shoe!

The Ballooners' Core Players

The Ballooners showcase an impressive roster of scorers who excel in various facets of the game. They wield a lethal outside shooting arsenal and display versatility in scoring points in the paint, thanks to their talented big men.

During the 2022-23 B2 season, point guard and primary scorer Reynaldo Garcia, 33, delivered an exceptional performance. He finished with an impressive average of 18.9 points per game in the regular season, while also contributing  5.2 assists and 2.4 steals. What's more, he was consistently one of B2's leaders in steals over the past three seasons.

Chase Fieler, 31, a seasoned player at the power forward position, achieved career-best statistical campaign in 2022-23. He averaged 17.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Fieler also shot 53.2% from the field.

Saga Ballooners
Saga shooting guard Taiki Sumida (B.LEAGUE)

Shooting guard Taiki Sumida, 24, a dynamic presence off the bench, made a significant impact during the 2022-23 season. He ranked third among B2 players in steals with 1.3 steals per game and was also among the top 10 in 3-point shooting accuracy (35.3%).

Yusuke Karino, 33, is a sharpshooter you can't afford to leave open beyond the arc. He had the best 3-point percentage in B1 for two consecutive seasons, hitting 52.9% in 2020-21 and 50.0% in 2021-22 while playing for the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins. Karino is set to make his debut with the Ballooners this season, having signed with the team in June 2023.

Another significant offseason addition is power forward Yoeli Childs, 25, who brings with him NBA G League experience. During his recent stint with the Salt Lake City Stars, Childs consistently achieved double-doubles in points and rebounds. He also competed for a couple of seasons in Germany's Bundesliga.

Josh Harrellson makes a play for the Fukushima Firebonds, his former team. (B.LEAGUE)

Harrellson Adds Additional Experience to Saga

In June, former NBA player Josh Harrellson joined the Ballooners as both a practice player and supporting coach. Harrelson, who previously played for the Fukushima Firebonds, is known for his impressive double-double averages in points and rebounds. His extensive B.League career includes four seasons as a starter with the Osaka Evessa, for whom he led the circuit in rebounds in 2018-19 and blocks in 2016-17. 

The 34-year-old Harrelson's veteran presence is expected to boost the team's defensive capabilities as it continues to grow and develop.

Key Matches for the Saga Ballooners

"The Champions of B1 and B2"

October 5 and 7: The Ballooners are set to host the reigning B1 champions, the Ryukyu Golden Kings from Okinawa, who had a flawless postseason in 2022.

"The Rematch"

December 6: A highly anticipated home game awaits as the Ballooners face off against the Nagasaki Velca. This matchup rekindles a fierce rivalry between two teams hailing from neighboring prefectures in the Kyushu region. Both squads, top performers in B2 last season, are set to clash for the first time in B1.

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Author: Galileo Ferrari

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