A vastly different Ryukyu Golden Kings basketball team stepped onto the court this season than the one that suited up for the 2007-08 campaign as a bj-league expansion squad.
For one thing, this club had a three-time champion, former Osaka Evessa center Jeff Newton, anchoring the middle. That gave it instant credibility.
It also had a former NBA Development League player named Anthony McHenry, who was hungry to contribute in any way possible.
And ex-Oita HeatDevils coach Dai Oketani, who was fired after last season, was eager to accept the challenge of trying to turn a team coming off a 10-34 season into a playoff contender in his first year on the job.
What’s more, Naoto Takushi and Shigeyuki Kinjo, talented guards who experienced the ups and downs of their first season in the league a year ago, embraced the opportunity to accept bigger roles in Ryukyu’s second season.
The Golden Kings rattled off 13 straight wins to begin the regular season and finished with a league-best 41-11 record and the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Ryukyu faces the fourth-seeded Rizing Fukuoka (22-30) in the conference semifinals on Tuesday and Wednesday in Naha. Both games tip off at 2 p.m.
Center Chris Ayer, who played alongside Newton in the frontcourt, praised the way Oketani handled his new team this season.
“Coach, he’s young but he’s skilled,” Ayer said by phone from Okinawa during a recent interview. “People kind of take that for granted. The biggest thing with coach Dai is he’s a player’s coach. We have key rules and guidelines we go by, but if we tell him, ‘Look, this isn’t working,’ he’s flexible.
“It’s a give-and-take relationship with coach. He’s really good about listening to us and understanding what we are saying.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that he’s been successful.”
With Oketani, who was 30 when he began the 2008-09 season in October, at the helm, Oita qualified for the bj-league playoffs in its second season, 2006-07, but slipped to a sub-.500 record (19-25) last season. The HeatDevils had a league-worst 8-44 record this season and recent media reports have stated that the cash-strapped team could fold due to the fact that it probably needs to find a new primary sponsor.
On the other hand, Oketani has discovered a sunny outlook in Okinawa, where he quickly stamped his identity on a talented Golden Kings team.
“He keeps all the players moving in the same direction,” observed Ayer, who played under Oketani for two seasons in Oita. “He’s really good at balancing all the guys’ personalities. He does a great job of mixing the import players and Japanese players so that everybody is getting along and making sure that we are a team.”
The bj-league’s 2008-09 Coach of the Year, Oketani guided a team with four double-digit scorers: Newton (17.9 points per game), McHenry (15.5), Kinjo and Ayer (13.2). Takushi averaged 9.7 ppg and reserve forward Bryan Simpson chipped in with 8.1. Newton and Takushi, who was among the league’s top 10 in both steals and assists, were both named to the league’s Best Five Team.
“We are a hard team to scout,” declared Ayer, who played at Loyola Marymount University. “We’ve had multiple games where we’ve had everybody on our bench score.
“Everybody on our team has been willing and able to step up when we needed it.”
In addition, the Golden Kings were the league’s top shot-blocking team, finishing with 273 blocks. McHenry had 85 blocks, Newton 79 and Ayer 64. It’s rare for any basketball team to have three elite-level shot-blockers, which was one key element of Ryukyu’s regular season success.
“I think we do a pretty good of utilizing (that skill),” said McHenry, who played college ball at Georgia Tech and participated in the 2004 NCAA Final Four.
“I don’t think we have much of a size advantage, but all three of us are pretty good shot-blockers. The shots we don’t block, we alter a little bit.”
With their long arms strategically positioned to frustrate opponents and limit their open looks at the basket, the 208-cm Ayer, 205-cm Newton and 202-cm McHenry teamed up to create plenty of headaches for foes and their coaches.
One of Ryukyu’s goals is to keep opposing shot-takers out of the paint, McHenry said.
In other words, the goal is to force them to shoot lower-percentage shots from the perimeter.
The Golden Kings opened the season with a 108-90 win over the visiting Rizing on Oct. 11, a game in which Kinjo scored 22 points and drained 6 of 7 3-point shots. Ryukyu’s powerful inside game was also on display in the season opener, as evidenced by its 11 slam dunks, including three apiece by Newton, McHenry and Simpson.
Throughout the season, Kinjo, who was fourth in the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (39.8 percent), exhibited a knack for hitting timely shots when his team needed a spark.
“Oh man, I’ve seen him makes some unbelievable shots, just layups, not even jump shots,” McHenry said, praising Kinjo’s athleticism.
“He’s one of those guys when he gets going he’s really hard to stop. He has a quick release and once he gets going we like to ride him. We like to get him a lot of shots when he gets going.
“He’s done a really good job of producing this year for us.”
Kinjo reached the 20-point plateau in 11 games, including a season-best 35 on April 11. He was named the league’s Most Improved Player last Thursday, the same day that Newton was chosen as the league’s MVP.
Before the season began, Newton believed his new team had the proper mix of talent and chemistry to compete for a title.
“We are on the same page,” he told The Japan Times. “Everybody is about the business of winning.”
Despite the Golden Kings’ healthy levels of confidence and swagger, they let their on-court performance make the biggest statement.
Ryukyu went 22-4 at home. The team was 8-0 against both Fukuoka and Oita and 6-2 against each of its other three Western Conference opponents — Osaka, Takamatsu Five Arrows and Shiga Lakestars.
“We just went out and executed, but we turned into a pretty good team,” McHenry said.
As the regular season neared its conclusion, McHenry said his team needed to maintain its focus, especially on defense, for the entire game. Having a “killer instinct . . . will help us going into the playoffs,” he concluded.