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Smith’s play helping Albirex contend after departure of Davis

by Ed Odeven

It was only natural to wonder how the Niigata Albirex BB would fare this season after the departure of free agent Nick Davis, one of the team’s cornerstone players when it made the jump from the JBL to the bj-league.

Davis, you may recall, helped Niigata reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

The veteran center’s steady play at both ends of the floor is a big reason for the Tokyo Apache’s strong turnaround this season.

Tokyo is 15-13 entering this weekend’s two-game homestand against the 19-9 Takamatsu Five Arrows at Ariake Colosseum. Davis has been a good fit for Joe Bryant’s team, which lacked a consistent low-post scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker last season.

The Albirex, on the other hand, are 19-11, two games behind the Sendai 89ers (20-8) in the Eastern Conference standings.

Forward Andre Smith, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Thursday, has played in the past dozen games for Masaya Hirose’s team, helping the Albirex win nine of those contests.

The North Dakota State University product is averaging 15.9 points per game. He’s topped the 20-point plateau on five occasions and scored 10 or more in all but two of his games.

What’s more, the 203-cm Smith has posted double-doubles in five of the last six games.

Smith previously played for the Sion Herens in Switzerland.

The Albirex begin a two-game road trip against the Rizing Fukuoka (10-18) on Friday.

In other two-game sets this weekend, starting on Saturday, the Toyama Grouses (4-26) play host to the Sendai 89ers (20-8), the Oita HeatDevils (12-16) take on the visiting Saitama Broncos (14-14) and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (7-21) entertain the Osaka Evessa (22-6).

COMINGS AND GOINGS: Veteran point guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa, who played for the Takamatsu Five Arrows last season, has signed a contract to play for the Rizing Fukuoka, the team that selected him in last spring’s expansion draft.

The move helps the team fill a void at point guard. Starter Tsuyoshi Kawazura’s minutes had expanded significantly after Jun Nakanishi’s season-ending knee injury in December.

Nakagawa, 25, has previously played for the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Kings of the United States Basketball League and in the American Basketball Association.

A Yamaguchi Prefecture native, Nakagawa helped the Five Arrows reach the bj-league title game last season as an expansion team. He had 20 points in the title game.

In a June 2007 article in SLAM magazine, ex-NBA player Kenny Charles, the Kings’ coach/general manager offered this analysis of the Japanese point guard: “Kaz is a team-oriented player who wants to get better. . . . He has a tremendous amount of desire and perseverance and has shown great improvement since his ABA days especially with patience on the offensive end.”

To make room on Fukuoka’s active player roster for Nakagawa, shooting guard Jun Suehiro was moved to the practice squad roster. He is currently recovering from leg surgery.

.500 IS FINE: After Saitama’s 79-76 loss to the Sendai on Sunday at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium, Broncos first-year coach David Benoit spoke at length about how pleased he’s been with his players for buying into his system.

The Broncos went 15-25 last season and 7-33 in 2005-06. Now they are a playoff contender. The team, he said, has adopted at “one game at a time” philosophy as it lays the foundation for the future.

“I can’t complain,” said Benoit, an ex-NBA player. “The guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do.”

Asked what has been the difference in the Broncos at this stage of 2008 compared to 2007, 89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi cited three reasons: better coaching, a big man in James Davis and the emergence of rebounding ace Gordon James as an improved shooter.

A year ago, James made 54.1 percent of his 2-point shots. Through Sunday, he was shooting at a 60.1-percent clip.

STEADY PROGRESS: James Davis has filled the role the Broncos envisioned when he first stepped onto the court on Nov. 25 for his Saitama debut.

A big, wide body (215 cm, 136 kg), Davis provides a formidable challenge for every opponent.

He now appears quicker and in better shape than when he played his first game in Japan. As a result, he’s playing more minutes now, too.

Davis played 30-plus minutes for the first time last weekend, doing so in both games against Sendai. He had 19 points, seven rebounds and six blocks in 32 minutes on Saturday, a 90-85 Saitama win. And he followed that with 18 points and nine boards in 30 minutes on Sunday.

“He’s really helped the team,” Benoit said of Davis, a former Lamar (Texas) University player. “He’s been a good inside presence.”

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: Tsubasa Yonamine, the HeatDevils’ starting point guard, is the league’s top assist man (5.9 per game).

Yonamine has been remarkably effective with the ball in his hands. He has had zero or one turnover in 20 of his 28 games.

On the season, he has 165 assists and 38 turnovers, numbers that will please any coach at any level.

Yonamine’s statistics were similar a year ago: 80 assists, 22 turnovers.