Eight teams vie for title in 2nd season

by Kaz Nagatsuka

After a historic and successful debut 2005-06 season, the bj-league looks to further progress and provide excitement in its second campaign, which tips off Saturday with a pair of games, including the Osaka Evessa-Tokyo Apache clash at Ariake Colosseum at 6 p.m.

News photoNiigata Albirex fans, showing their team support during the bj-league championship game at Ariake Colosseum last April, demonstrate the excitement the new league created last season around Japan.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Each team will play 40 games again this season, and the Takamatsu Five Arrows and Toyama Grouses join the fold as expansion teams.

“The whole league will be tough,” Evessa power forward Lynn Washington said, “just because everybody’s got players who do well against us.’

Washington’s statement put the league’s pecking order into perspective. Right now, there’s the Evessa, and there’s everybody else.

Here are team-by-team breakdowns for the 2006-07 season. (Last year’s results are in parentheses):

NIIGATA ALBIREX BB

(29-11, second in regular season, lost to Osaka in playoff final):

Led by one of Japan’s brightest coaches, Masaya Hirose, Niigata arguably plays a more organized game than any other team in the bj-league. Its go-to guy is center Nick Davis, a 203-cm former Arkansas player who uses his long arms to block shots and dominate on the glass, as well as making a big impact on offense. Davis led the league in rebounding with 15.5 boards per game last season.

Along with Davis, newly acquired Jack Hartman will help Davis in the paint. The 208-cm forward Hartman, who played for the Oita HeatDevils and recorded 2.0 steals per game, the league’s best mark, has quick hands and can shoot the ball from outside the arc. Forward Matt Garrison is a high-energy player and doesn’t hesitate to play a bruising style of ball.

On the outside, the Japanese players are dependable and give the team depth. A former ABA point guard, veteran Makoto Hasegawa is the heart of this team and pours a lot of energy on the floor. Hasegawa missed 14 games last season, but Takamichi Fujiwara, who finished third in the league in assists per game (4.08), stepped up in his absence and will be able to help the team again this year. Shooting guard Kimitake Sato is a rising talent whom Hirose has high hopes for, but needs to improve on his shooting.

OITA HEATDEVILS

(15-25, fifth, did not advance to playoffs):

Another challenge is waiting for 29-year-old coach Dai Oketani and the HeatDevils, who replaced last year’s foreign players with new ones.

The HeatDevils allowed 84.3 points per game, second-worst to the Tokyo Apache, last season, and tall players, such as center Chris Ayer and forward/center Andy Ellis, who are 208 cm and 211 cm, respectively, will be required to chip in both offensively and defensively in their debut season in the bj-league.

Point guard Yukinori Suzuki is one of the premier shooters in bj, and needs to lead this team with his long-range shots again this season. Suzuki led the league in 3-point shooting percentage (43.7 percent), was second in assists (4.10) and was third in free-throw percentage (82.0) last season. The 29-year-old was the only Japanese player to be named to the All-bj-league team in 2005-06. Guard Kohei Mitsutomo is a quality player, too.

OSAKA EVESSA

(31-9, first, won playoff final):

Capitalizing on the talents of their American players — forwards Lynn Washington, Jeff Newton, David Palmer and point guard Matt Lottich — the Evessa are expected to contend for another title this season.

Washington’s name did not appear among the top three in any major categories last season (20.4 ppg, fifth; 50.5 field-goal percentage, sixth; and 11.0 rpg). But his versatile, steady game made him a dominant player and earned him the MVP award for the inaugural season.

Assist king and sharp shooter Lottich and shot blocker Newton form arguably the league’s best triangle with Washington. Newton was second in the league in rebounding at 12.0 per game as well.

Small forward Kazuya Hatano and shooting guard Masashi Joho don’t just help the foreigners setting picks and playing D, but they can be in the spotlight themselves. Hatano, posted 8.1 ppg and 5.4 rpg last season, is highly athletic, and young Joho, who scored 8.4 ppg, showed improvement in every contest.

SAITAMA BRONCOS

(7-33, sixth, did not advance to playoffs):

The Broncos’ struggles started when forward David Benoit tore his Achilles tendon after he played only 10 games last season. Benoit, who was averaging 26.8 points and 19.8 rebounds until he got hurt, is back on the team this year but unlikely to be at 100 percent early in the season.

Scoring-wise, Marcus Toney-El, who joined the team in the middle of last season to fill the void left by Benoit’s absence, averaged 22.2 ppg in 26 games, will again carry a major portion of the scoring load this year. A trio of newcomers — power forward Gordon James, a 206-cm forward/center Andrew Feeley and veteran shooter Kazuhiro Shoji — are expected to give Toney-El a scoring boost as well. A year ago, the Broncos scored a league-low 71.5 ppg.

New coach Kenji Yamane expects shooting guard Kosuke Shimizu, who was the sole Japanese player to notch a double-digit scoring average last season (10.5), will develop further this year. Point guards Ryuzo Anzai and Taishiro Shimizu are solid and reliable, but can increase their impact by becoming better shooters.

SENDAI 89ERS

(18-22, fourth, lost in playoff semifinal):

After the disappointing outcome of last season, in which the 89ers rapidly slowed down in the latter half of the campaign, they are trying to avoid the same fate.

With Andre Larry and Michael Jackson both gone from the team, the 89ers will have to find consistent scorers first. Coach Honoo Hamaguchi thinks versatile forwards Ryan Blackwell and Michael Chappell can be the successors for Jackson and Larry.

Hamaguchi also wants to tighten the team’s defense and a 207-cm center/forward, Andrew Ecker, is expected to put up big numbers in the hustle department — namely, rebounds and blocked shots. Defense will be the key for Sendai to be able to have a consistent season.

Meanwhile, the Japanese players need to contribute as well. Hikaru Kusaka stands only 173 cm but has stamina and guts to challenge opposing players. But there’s no denying the fact that this team is short on talent compared to other teams. Perhaps the biggest factor will be if the younger Japanese players can step up and make an impact.

TAKAMATSU FIVE ARROWS

(expansion team)

This team is still raw, though it has an ability to make an impact in its debut season. Head coach Motofumi Aoki said he promises that his Five Arrows will play an up-tempo game and create a lot of fast breaks. He has set his team’s offensive benchmark for this season at around 90 points per game.

When they get on a good roll, it is possible. Takamatsu defeated the Evessa in the preseason, 105-96, and even their fans were in mid-season form, hooting and hollering with delight.

Forwards Reggie Warren and Isaac Sojouner have wide wingspans and are trustworthy all-around-type players, while center Julius Ashby can dominate the paint.

Diagne Thierno Seydou Nouro, originally from Senegal, played at Fukuoka Daiichi High School and won various tournament titles. The 207-cm power forward is considered a future star of the league.

Among the Japanese players, Shuhei Shiroma, a former Fukuoka Red Falcon, and 169-cm speedster, Makoto Kita, are expected to provide some spark from 3-point range.

TOKYO APACHE

(20-20, third, lost in the semifinal and won third-place game in playoffs):

Coach Joe Bryant publicly said he gave every player equal opportunities last season. But it will change this season. He declared he will use better players to win.

With the addition of Nick Billings and Jeremee McGuire, who are 214 cm and 210 cm, respectively, the team gained some height and Bryant will try to improve the defense around the pair.

Offensively, even without William Pippen, who was third in scoring at 22.1 ppg in the league last season but did not return to the team this season, the Apache still can score a lot of points.

Dynamic slam dunker John “Helicopter” Humphrey, last season’s leading scorer (23.2 ppg), will dominate the floor from both outside and inside with his athletic, powerful moves. The acquisition of Michael Jackson, last season’s all-bj-leaguer, from the 89ers will help the team as well.

Darin Satoshi Maki’s injury on his (left) shooting hand concerns the team, but other Japanese players, such as Jun Nakanishi, Yasuhiro Ohba and Jumpei Nakama, are ready to show their improvement in the 2006-07 season.

TOYAMA GROUSES

(expansion team)

After years of playing as a club team, the Grouses finally make their professional debut this season, and it’s no surprise that the people of Toyama cheered for them excitedly during the preseason.

The Grouses acquired 188-cm guard Takanori Goya as the No. 1 overall pick in the bj-league draft in May, and expect him to lead the team in his rookie season. But Goya understands his role well and says he will do whatever it takes to make his team win games rather than focusing on posting strong individual numbers.

Veteran center Takatoshi Ishibashi will shoulder the load offensively and defensively, providing needed leadership for the club. Ishibashi, who played for Japan in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, is 38 years old and lacks the stamina he had a decade ago, but still can be a force in the paint.

Guards Yoichi Nema and Satoshi Yonemoto add experience and playmaking ability as well. Nema played for the Fukuoka Red Falcons and Yonemoto was a member of the Mitsubishi Melco Dolphins, both of which were in the JBL Super League, last season.

Forward/center Jerod Ward has long-range shooting skills and is agile in the paint. Guard Nile Murry and small forward Nate James will showcase athleticism at both ends of the court.