It may be too early to call the Sendai 89ers a title contender, but it’s time to pay attention to what they’ve accomplished through six games.
SENDAI 89ERS / BJ-LEAGUE PHOTO
Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s club sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 5-1 record.
The 89ers are 3-1 at home and 2-0 on the road, scoring 86.3 points per game and allowing 80 (four of those victories, however, have come against the winless Toyama Grouses).
But a clear pattern of success is beginning to emerge. And it all starts with newcomer Bobby St. Preux. The 197-cm forward is averaging a team-best 23.3 ppg, including 18 or more in each contest.
In a nutshell, here’s what he’s provided the team: instant offense. He’s started one of six games and played a grand total of 179 minutes, but scored 140 points.
St. Preux is making his shots at a super rate, too. He’s 35 of 41 from the foul line, 27 of 44 on traditional field-goal attempts and 17 of 41 from 3-point range.
St. Preux was born in Haiti. His family relocated to West Palm Beach, Fla., when he was 9. He didn’t begin playing organized basketball until junior high school.
But he became a productive player and spent two seasons at Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College. Then he transferred to Division II Northern Kentucky University.
“He has more innate athleticism than any player that I’ve ever coached,” then-NKU coach Kenny Shields told the Cincinnati Post in 2001.
“That doesn’t necessarily transfer to big-time productivity. But if he can channel things correctly and keep from letting his jump shot be the key to his game, he really is capable of being an outstanding player.”
Exhibit A: He scored 26 points in the 89ers’ 77-74 season-opening win against the Grouses on Nov. 1, including a 9-for-10 effort from the charity stripe. He topped that by scoring 28 a day later.
Exhibit B: St. Preux had 20 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and two steals in an 80-61 win over the Grouses on Nov. 17.
St. Preux, 27, played in the American Basketball Association last season. He’s also starred in a Gatorade commercial with Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade.
The 89ers, who lost All-Star forward Mamadou Diouf, the team’s most consistent player down the stretch last season, to the Tokyo Apache before the season, have also received steady production from point guard Hikaru Kusaka (35 assists, nine turnovers through six games), forward Ryan Blackwell (17.0 ppg) and center Patrick Whearty (61 rebounds to date), all of whom have played prominent roles as well.
After losing their first home game of the season, a 103-84 setback to Tokyo on Nov. 9, Sendai returned the favor with a 90-85 triumph the next day. The 89ers matched the Apache’s intensity down the stretch, keeping pace in a wild fourth quarter by scoring 35 points (the same number produced by Joe Bryant’s squad).
The 89ers won the rematch by getting double-digit scoring from five players: St. Preux (18), Nick DeWitz (17), Blackwell (16) and Whearty and Hideki Katsumata (13 apiece).
Call it a sign of depth.
What’s more, Sendai made 19 of 23 free throws in the win, an example of Hamaguchi’s commitment to fundamentals.
His team finished the 2006-07 season with an 19-21 record and missed the playoffs. This 89ers team appears capable of being a playoff contender in April.
After a well-earned rest this weekend, Sendai returns to the hardwood next weekend for a pair of games against the Apache at Ariake Colosseum. Those rematches could play a big part in how the playoff race materializes in the Eastern Conference this season.
The Apache, 4-2 after a two-game split against the host Osaka Evessa last weekend, play host to the Saitama Broncos (2-4) this Saturday and Sunday.
In this weekend’s action, Toyama takes on the visiting Evessa (5-1) on Friday and Saturday.
On Saturday, the Niigata Albirex BB (3-3) visit the Oita HeatDevils (2-4) for the first of two games and the Ryukyu Golden Kings, who played the Rizing Fukuoka on Wednesday and Thursday nights in Kyushu, travel to face the Takamatsu Five Arrows (4-2).
ALL-STAR GAME: Fan voting has begun for the 2007-08 All-Star Game, which will be played Dec. 29 in Niigata. Visit the league’s Web site — www.bj-league.com — to cast your votes.