Few NCAA athletes can claim to have played at a professional level before ever checking in to their first college contest. For incoming Stony Brook Seawolves basketball standout Kaine Roberts however, it’s just the next step in an unconventional journey that has seen the rising 19-year-old point guard go from playing professionally as an amateur in Japan’s B.League to Division I college recruit in the U.S.
All along, Roberts’s goal has been simple: to keep working and get better every day; to go from an underrated and underrecruited high school hooper to an elite-level talent. It’s an approach to the game that got him noticed at the Tokyo stop of Stephen Curry’s Underrated Tour, Powered by Rakuten, in 2019 and it’s been powering his ascension since.
Looking for the next underrated icon
Launched by Stephen Curry in January 2019, the Underrated Tour is a first-of-its-kind series of basketball camps designed to highlight underrated prep athletes looking to make it to the next level. The goal of the camp is simple: to allow unsigned high school players with a 3-star ranking or below the opportunity to refine their skills, gain exposure and achieve a deeper understanding of the game.
Inspired by Stephen Curry’s own story of going from overlooked and “undersized” 3-star recruit to a three-time NBA champion, two-time Kia NBA MVP Award winner, and seven-time NBA All-Star, the tour has gone on to inspire countless young athletes both in the U.S., and in Japan, where Stephen Curry and Brandon Payne, Curry’s personal skills development and performance coach, made a special summer stop in 2019.
Lessons from Stephen Curry
So what did his participation at the Tokyo stop of the tour teach Roberts? “I learned that being underrated was okay and that being a five-star [recruit] or the best player in the country or state isn’t the only way to make it to your dreams. But the grind and reps are what’s going to get you there,” explained Roberts in an interview with NBA Rakuten, Japan’s one-stop destination to watch NBA games and programming, access official NBA stats on teams and players, catch the latest news and original articles, chat live with other users and enjoy other NBA-related content.
Not only did Roberts get to play alongside other gifted young basketball players and in front of coaches and scouts during the Tokyo tour stop, he also got to meet Curry. “The experience of just being able to see Stephen Curry, a role model for many, was a great experience and opportunity that I am glad I had. One thing that Steph Curry said to the whole group as a whole that stood out to me was that he wasn’t always a good shooter he had to work and work and get better with repetition to get his shot to where it is now.”
Putting in work: learning from the vets in Japan’s B.League
The Underrated Tour wasn’t only about learning the value of hard work. Roberts’ standout play also got him recognized by the head coach of the Tokyo Earth Friends Z, a team in the second division of Japan’s B.League. It wasn’t long before Roberts was a member of the Earth Friends, competing on the professional level for the first time in his career, going head to head against the best players in Japan. All of this was done while retaining amateur status, a first in the B.League.
As a teenager playing against full grown pros, the games weren’t easy, but the hard work and learning were worth it. “I learned a lot from the veteran guys, the coaches and staff. There are a lot of technical and small things that the players taught me to get my game to the next level.”
A coach’s perspective on a young samurai
Kris Thiesen, a varsity basketball coach in Japan and the director of the Tokyo Samurai AAU program, knows first-hand how hard Kaine Roberts has worked to develop his skills.
“Kaine is an interesting story,” said Thiesen. “He first came to us through a camp we run in the spring when he was in middle school. You could see the raw athleticism he had but he was very undisciplined.” But Samurai, which aims to get exposure for kids living in Japan to U.S. college basketball coaches, is all about getting the best out of young athletes, demanding as that process may be.
“Initially we didn’t select [Kaine]. He had more to prove to us. To his credit, he took the feedback to heart and really worked on improving.”
After two years of developing his skills, Kaine was accepted into the program. That led to a brief stint with Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California, but there was more Roberts wanted to accomplish. “With few colleges interested, Kaine needed to decide on his next step,” said Thiesen. Roberts could attend a lower-level college, try to find a prep school that might take him, or return to Japan to play as a pro.
Eventually though, despite injuries and other setbacks, college coaches took notice. “I had been putting film together of his games, but Kaine had one in particular in January that he scored 16 points with some impressive shooting. I had sent out some film to college coaches and Stony Brook was impressed with what they saw. They liked his skill but also his attitude and effort which made us proud. They offered him a scholarship and he signed a letter of intent a few weeks later.”
So how would Thiesen describe Kaine Roberts? “Kaine is a super athlete, one of the quickest first steps I have seen, and he’s really laid back. Doesn’t get too high or too low, always smiling. I’ve seen his maturity too.”
From Earth Friend, to Seawolf, to whatever comes next
As Roberts now embarks on the next chapter of his underrated success story, he hasn’t lost sight of what got him this far. “There are going to be a lot of tough times throughout your career, but you have to keep going and never stop and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” With his optimistic attitude and ever expanding skillset, Roberts is motivated to continue turning doubters into believers.