Oga determined to play for WNBA’s Mercury

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Asked if she has confidence in her command of the English language, Yuko Oga replied in her signature fashion. She laughed, and then she answered the question.

“I was in America for a year when I was a child and know the pronunciation of the people over there, and I can converse to some degree” said Oga, who announced at a news conference on Wednesday that she was invited by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury to their preseason training camp next month.

“I certainly don’t have any problem in basketball English. So if I only learn some jokes, I’ll be perfect. I’m now memorizing some jokes.”

The 25-year-old Oga, who lived in Los Angeles for a year when she was a young elementary school student, is widely recognized as one of the best female players in Japan. She joined the JOMO Sunflowers in 2001 and has helped the team win four WJBL and three All-Japan Tournament titles since then.

Oga was named the WJBL’s 2007-08 regular-season MVP. She helped the Sunflowers reach the WJBL Finals, losing the series in five games to the Fujitsu Red Wave. She is also a member of the Japan national team and played in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Although Oga was officially informed about the invitation from the Mercury after the Finals, she learned she would have the chance to test herself in the United States in January, when the Mercury’s new head coach, Corey Gaines, a former NBA player who takes over for Paul Westhead this season, visited Japan and told Oga’s club about the invitation for the tryout.

If Oga becomes a WNBA player, she will be the second Japanese to play in the league. Mikiko Hagiwara was the first, having played for the Sacramento Monarchs and Mercury in 1997 and ’98.

Coming back from mourning the loss suffered in the WJBL Finals, Oga was pleased about the news. Yet she didn’t call this a “dream come true,” because she has always set high objectives in her career.

“I’m glad that I can challenge the WNBA, which has been my goal, rather than my dream,” said the point guard, who led the league in assists (7.07 per game) and steals (2.39) and was fourth in scoring (15.6) this past season.

“But I don’t want to only end up challenging it, but also want to make the league and play well as a point guard there.”

Oga is scheduled to go to the United States early next month before the Mercury tryout gets under way on April 19. The 2008 season tips off on May 17.

A 170-cm speedster, Oga knows it won’t be easy to crack the roster. And the quality of the game is a bit different from that in Japan. Yet she still believes that she can make a strong impression on the coaches.

And technically, Oga said she is confident that she will be able to show what others don’t really have in the United States.

“First off, since I’m a point guard, I want to show I can be attentive to surrounding players, as a thing that Americans don’t have,” Oga revealed, speaking before nearly 100 reporters.

“Americans tend to rely on individual skills and it’s said that they don’t really pass the ball. So contrastively I’m going to feed passes to them and I think I can give some freshness in the league with it.”

Oga, a native of Yamagata Prefecture, was a star player at Nagoya’s Ohka Gakuen High School, a perennial powerhouse for girls hoops.

In those days, she was a shooting guard and a fierce scorer, capitalizing on her phenomenal shooting skills. But after joining the WJBL, JOMO coach Tomohide Utsumi moved her to the commander position, and Oga would eventually realize the profundity of playmaking.

Utsumi said he knew that she would be able to manage the role.

“She was given a scoring role in high school, though, I thought we had to grow her as a point guard that she would eventually represent Japan in the future,” he said of Oga.

Oga said she watched games of the Mercury live last May. Her impression was that the team applied a run-and-gun style, using three guards on the floor. She thinks she’s got a not-so-tiny shot at making the roster if the team’s style hasn’t changed.

Oga considers Mercury point guard Diana Taurasi her “rival,” but wants to help the talented ex-UConn star excel.

A JOMO spokesman said that both the company and team will support Oga and her challenge in the United States as much as possible. Oga became the first professional player in Japan’s women’s basketball history last August and has a contract with the company. But JOMO will release her from it if she becomes a WNBA player.

Utsumi said that Oga is truly a gifted basketball player. But he wants her to pursue a higher goal: play in the WNBA and become a more complete player.

“I want her to use players around her and make shots at a high percentage,” said Utsumi. “Lately, including in the NBA, even point guards make shots at high percentages. She has to absorb shooting ability like that.”

Oga, who said her first basketball game experience was when she was taken to a Los Angeles Lakers game at the Great Western Forum and from then on she fell in love with the sport, is returning to the nation where her basketball jones began.

And even though her stage may be different, Oga’s cheerful persona will remains as it’s always been.

“What I’m most worried about is, I can’t go to the hair salon I always visit,” Oga said with a grin.