Before the overhyped Y2K scare at the end of the last century and the technological breakthroughs of the 21st century, the Vancouver Grizzlies selected a former UCLA Bruins forward named J.R. Henderson in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft.
The Grizzlies relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, in 2001, the same year the long-limbed forward made his debut with the Aisin SeaHorses of the now-disbanded JBL.
For the majority of the years since then, he has been employed by the SeaHorses, including continuously since 2007, when he became a naturalized citizen known as J.R. Sakuragi.
In the twilight of his pro career, Sakuragi, now 40, speaks with clarity and well-formed opinions on the evolution of Japan pro basketball based on massive changes he’s seen in almost two decades.
Asked to compare where pro basketball was in 2001 in Japan and where it is now, Sakuragi summed it up as “night and day.”
“Back in the early 2000s, it seemed liked it was just company teams competing against each other for bragging rights and to boost employee morale,” said Sakuragi, who’ll travel with his SeaHorses Mikawa teammates to play the defending champion Tochigi Brex in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, on Friday night to open the 2017-18 campaign.
“Today it seems more like a professional league. Entertainment value increased, marketing the league became important and the skill of the players increased, which makes the product attractive. I definitely believe the league and Japanese basketball is headed in the right direction.”
After a 46-14 record and a West Division title last season, the SeaHorses moved to the Central Division along with the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins in the offseason.
Longtime SeaHorses coach Kimikazu Suzuki’s squad has lofty expectations for the 60-game season.
“The team outlook is positive,” said the 203-cm Sakuragi, who was No. 2 in the B. League in assists (4.1 per game) in 2016-17. “We are certain we can fare better than last season and that is the goal for this season. We would like to advance to the final game for a chance to compete for the league championship.”
The SeaHorses reached the playoff semifinals last spring, falling to Brex in a mini-game tiebreaker after Game 2 of their playoff series. For them, it was disheartening end to a remarkable season.
And Sakuragi won’t forget it.
“The abrupt ending left us more confused than anything,” he told The Japan Times on Monday. “The new playoff format was very unfamiliar to us. The ‘mini-game’ was no more than a double overtime to me. Not sure it is the best way to determine the best team, but that’s the way it is and we’ll just have to adjust.”
Frontcourt standout Gavin Edwards took his strong all-around game to the Chiba Jets Funabashi after four seasons in a SeaHorses uniform. As a result, Mikawa looks to 208-cm newcomer Daniel Orton, a former University of Kentucky center and first-round pick of the Orlando Magic in 2010, to make an instant impact as his replacement. (Over three NBA seasons, Orton appeared in 51 games for the Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder.)
Sakuragi acknowledged that it’s been a big adjustment for the SeaHorses with Orton in the lineup.
“They are totally different players,” Sakuragi said. “But we have bulked up our bench this season so production from that position is not as important. We just need him to be consistent, which removes needless pressure off his shoulders, allowing him to play freely.
“Gavin’s best contribution to the team was his shot blocking. Daniel is a very talented shot blocker. He also passes the ball very well, which is what our team fuels off of because of the shooters we have.”
Mikawa’s gifted perimeter scorers include returnees Kosuke Kanamaru, Makoto Hiejima and captain Masaya Karimata, plus newcomer Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui, who left the Alvark Tokyo in the offseason.
As a confident leader who sees plays unfold a second or two before many of his peers, Sakuragi’s mental focus is as sharp as ever. Observing his solid play last season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t perform at a high level again as he approaches his 41st birthday this fall.
For now, team unity is his mission
“My main focus is chemistry,” Sakuragi said. “Keeping the guys together and on the same page is half the battle. Talent with no chemistry is just that . . . talent.”
Indeed, it would be accurate to describe Sakuragi as a coach-like figure on the court.
“I hope to have this team playing to its maximum potential early on in the season,” said Sakuragi, sounding very much like a future head coach. “Everyone on the same page and having a complete understanding of what it is we are trying to accomplish out on the court. This takes a lot of time, patience, communication and energy, but I am willing to put in the work.”