The Tokyo Apache begin their fourth season with the same goal that was within their reach at the end of last season: a bj-league title.
Coming off a runnerup finish to the Osaka Evessa in May’s title game, Apache coach Joe Bryant has prepared his squad for another playoff run. Tokyo faces Eastern Conference rival Niigata Albirex BB in the teams’ season-opening series, which begins on Friday in Niigata. (See the Apache’s complete schedule in Friday’s Scoreboard on page 15.)
“Last year, we played well at the right time,” Bryant said during a recent telephone interview. “The important thing is to make the playoffs and to be playing well going into the playoffs.”
Last season, the Apache won 27 of 44 regular-season games and played their best basketball down the stretch to emerge as a title contender.
This season, the Apache return a strong nucleus of veteran players and welcome three newcomers — forward Tizzo Johnson, center Julius Ashby and guard Kosaku Yada — to the mix.
The 205-cm Ashby played for the Takamatsu Five Arrows two seasons ago, helping the club reach the bj-league title game in its inaugural season.
He’s expected to play major minutes in the frontcourt alongside Nick Davis, who was the starting big man for the Albirex when they reached the championship game in 2006 and played a major role in Tokyo’s turnaround last season (the team went 12-28 in 2006-07 in the season before Davis’ arrival).
“I think he can help us defensively and get blocked shots,” Bryant said of Ashby. “We never had a real shot-blocker before Nick. Now we have two of them. That helps us defensively in taking away the easy baskets.
“We’ve never been a big team, so I’m happy about that.”
In 2007-08, Davis ranked third in the league in rebounds (12.6 per game) and second in blocks (3.1). He averaged 15.1 points per contest.
Backcourt mainstays John “Helicopter” Humphrey (19.9 ppg) and Cohey Aoki (15.8 ppg) should provide consistent offensive production for Bryant. Both have played for the Apache since the team was established.
Another original Apache, point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, made valuable contributions last season. Fellow guard Jun Iwasa returns for his second season in the backcourt.
Shooting guard Masashi Joho collected his second championship ring in 2007, helping the Evessa beat Ashby’s squad. In his first season with the Apache, he nailed his share of big shots and played with a swagger that helped boost the club’s confidence.
In the offseason, Joho participated in the bj-league’s summer workouts in Las Vegas and made a strong impression.
He scored 20-plus points in a few of those games, Bryant noted.
“He looked good,” the coach added. “His body is also getting much bigger.”
Joho is listed at 83 kg in the 2008-09 league media guide. He was 76 kg in the book a year ago.
In the frontcourt, Shoji Nakanishi, Jumpei Nakama and Tomoya Nakamura are back. Nakanishi is coming off knee surgery and isn’t expected to play until January, according to Bryant.
Nakama, on the other hand, played stronger as the 2007-08 season progressed. The small forward had a major knee injury two seasons ago and vigorously worked to rehabilitate it.
Bryant described Nakama as a “defensive presence” in 2005-06, calling him a versatile defender who could match up against American guys and smaller guys. Now, the coach is “looking for bigger and better things from him.”
“I’m really curious to see him back healthy,” Bryant added, acknowledging it often takes two years for players to fully recover from knee injuries.
Johnson, a former University of North Carolina-Greensboro player, will be expected to defend opposing power forwards. At 203 cm, he has the size to match up with guys like Osaka’s Nick DeWitz and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s Andy Ellis, who was the league’s top scorer in 2007-08 (25.1 ppg for the Oita HeatDevils).
“Those guys go out and shoot, and that creates matchup problems,” Bryant said. “He (Tizzo) will be a key to guarding those players.”
Johnson, 27, previously played professional ball in Germany.
During their late-season run, Aoki’s switch to sixth man proved to be the spark the Apache needed. It gave them, in the words of Bryant, “instant offense and it changes the pace of the game.”
Aoki led all Japanese players in free-throw attempts last season, getting to the line for 190 shots. He made 170 of them and just missed out on winning his third straight free-throw shooting title.
Osaka’s Naoto Nakamura claimed the top spot with 91.5 percent accuracy; Aoki registered 89.5 percent.
“I know I can depend on him in whatever situation he’s going to be in,” Bryant said.
Bryant hasn’t ruled out using Aoki in a starting role. But he likes the production Aoki gives the team off the bench.
“Early in the season, I’m going to watch and see the consistency of the Japanese players night in and night out,” Bryant said. “And as we move into the meat and potatoes of the season, that will help me figure out the rotation (for the stretch run).”
In the paint: Yada, who grew up in Oregon, attended Harvard University and saw limited playing time at the school while pursuing a degree in international relations. He served as an assistant coach for the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido last season.
Editor’s note: Ed Odeven will preview the Eastern and Western Conference teams in Saturday’s newspaper.