The expansion Shimane Susanoo Magic can place a check mark next to the first item on their to-do list.
An 83-64 win on Sunday against the host Saitama Broncos gave coach Zeljko Pavlicevic’s club something to build on as it prepares for its first home series this weekend against the Oita HeatDevils.
Having had a few days to analyze the statistics and develop a few general impressions about his young team, Pavlicevic was upbeat during a telephone conversation Wednesday morning.
“The players were very happy with the second game and how they played,” said Pavlicevic, who served as Japan’s coach during the 2006 FIBA World Championship. “What they did in practice they showed in the game.”
Saitama’s 84-72 win over Shimane on Saturday gave Bob Nash his first victory as the Broncos’ bench boss. It also lit a fire under Pavlicevic’s charges, motivating them to play better a day later, according to the Shimane coach.
Even though the opening games were held in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, a spirited mood existed in the Susanoo Magic’s home region.
“In Shimane, it was like a fiesta and our fans were very happy and everybody in the front office was very happy about the first victory,” Pavlicevic said, describing the mood after game.
On Sunday, forward Reginald Golson, who attended Southeast Missouri State, paced Shimane with 21 points, 13 rebound and six steals and center Will Caudle, a Xavier product, had 20 points.
Tatsuhiro Yokoo poured in 16 points and backcourt mate Takumi Ishizaki had 10 points, 13 assists and three steals.
Saitama guard Kenny Satterfield, an NBA veteran, faced a number of different defensive looks on Sunday, going up against Ishizaki, Koki Yabuchi and Forrest Ray Fisher III, among others. Satterfield had 13 points and eight assists, but also turned the ball over seven times.
The Magic’s defensive intensity in only their second game was an encouraging sign for Pavlicevic, who has coached some of Europe’s top teams. And he’ll remind his players that their defensive performance on Sunday can be a catalyst for future success.
“Everybody needs to play defense,” he said. “Our team spirit we build from defense.”
The coach was also quick to point out that Ishizaki, the first active bj-league player to be named to the national team, exceeded expectations in the opening weekend.
“Some of his passes were really great passes,” Pavlicevic said. “He was passing after driving (in the lane). He was making bounce passes to tall guys. He was making passes on the fast break.
“Thirteen assists is special in Japan for him because a lot of people think of Ishizaki as only a shooting guard.”
But Pavlicevic has peppered Ishizaki with advice, helping him to understand he has options with the ball in his hands: shoot or pass.
“In some situations he can take shots and score more points,” the coach said. “But he was the leader on the court (on Sunday) and for this game he played very well.”
Solid debut: Akita Happinets rookie guard Makoto Sawaguchi, 18, had a confidence-building first weekend in a bj-league uniform.
The Morioka Minami High School graduate drained a 3-pointer, his only shot attempt, in Saturday’s season opener against the Sendai 89ers. A day later, Sawaguchi scored nine points and added two rebounds and two assists in 13-plus minutes.
“Sawaguchi showed that he can play professional basketball in this league at age 18,” Akita coach Bob Pierce said.
“His seven points in the fourth quarter in Sunday’s game were fun to watch. He was the best Japanese player on the court for a few minutes.
“He has speed and quickness, which may be the most important physical attributes a player can possess. He gets into the paint, or to the rim, and then he has a knack for finding a way to score. . .”
“Plus he has made one 3-point shot in each of our games — 2-for-4 for the season — and that will force teams to play him honest.”
Pierce believes Sawaguchi will gain valuable insight from Happinets veterans, including Makoto Hasegawa and Kazuhiro Shoji, calling them both “great teachers.”
And there’ll plenty of adjustments for Sawaguchi as he makes the quantum leap from high school to the pros.
“He needs to be more vocal, and still has a long way to go defensively,” Pierce said. “He’s good with the ball, but often stands and watches without it, so has to learn to move and play without the ball. He also missed three free throws in that fourth quarter (on Sunday), so he still has a long list of things to work on. Weight training, for example, is a new experience for him.”
Nevertheless, Sawaguchi will be an intriguing player for coaches, fans and the media to follow during the long 52-game season.
“Fans are going to have a real treat this season, watching him grow and improve from game to game throughout this season,” Pierce said. “He reminds me of a young (Masashi) Joho, so that matchup in Shiga in December could be lots of fun to watch.
“Maybe we should just have a bj-league pay-per-view one-on-one match featuring those two.”
Ideal role model: Hasegawa, 39, has made a positive impression in the short time he has been with the expansion Happinets, his hometown team.
After the team’s first game, point guard Sek Henry, 23, sat down with The Japan Times for a courtside interview at Akita Prefectural Gymnasium and offered his insights about the subject.
“It’s unbelievable,” Henry said. “He keeps his body right. He’s a very wise, good player. He just knows tricks and tactics on offense and defense and how to make you throw your shot off, and on offense he knows how to use his body to separate you to get shots off. He’s just a very talented player.
“I would love to be able to play to his age. That would be great. I mean, for him to still be healthy and for him to be able to come out here and play with players like myself that are only 23 years old, that tells you right there he’s a hard worker.”
Akita forward/center Paul Butorac, Hasegawa’s Niigata teammate the past two seasons, agreed with Henry’s assessment.
“When you see Hasegawa and how hard he works for his age, you don’t see that on an everyday basis. He works harder than most of these guys out here do, and he’s (nearly) two times their age.”
Fantastic five: A new addition to the notebook this season, this entry will provide a short analysis of the team’s top teams on a regular basis.
1. Hamamatsu (2-0): The defending champs opened the season with a pair of victories over Toyama, including Sunday’s 103-66 cakewalk, a game in which the Phoenix had 21 assists to the Grouses’ nine. Sharpshooter Wayne Arnold scored 27 points, including 6-for-11 from 3-point range, in 22 electrifying minutes.
2. Sendai (2-0): Newcomer Mac Hopson instantly became a recognizable face in this league, scoring 35 points against Akita on Saturday, followed by a 33-point outburst in the rematch. The former NBA Development League player made 26 of 39 shots from the field over the weekend to pace the 89ers.
3. Osaka (2-0): Tone-setter Lynn Washington averaged 20.5 points and 11 rebounds in the season-opening sweep over Miyazaki. He also sank 11 of 11 free-throw attempts, giving rookie coach Ryan Blackwell a few seconds of tranquillity.
4. Shiga (1-1): After a seven-point loss in their opener against Fukuoka, the Lakestars bounced back with an 18-point triumph in on Sunday, which included outscoring the Rizing 53-28 in the second half. Masashi Joho paced Shiga with 25 points in the one-sided win, newcomer Lamar Rice had 21 and Gary Hamilton, the league’s most underrated player, added 17 points, 17 rebounds, five steals, three assists and one block.
5. Ryukyu (1-1): Point guard Tsubasa Yonamine handed out 14 assists against two turnovers in a series split against Takamatsu, which included a two-point overtime loss. Shooting guard Naoto Kosuge, a capable perimeter marksman, drained 7 of 12 3s and averaged 15.0 points per game in the series.
The wild, wild West: Seven of the Western Conference’s nine teams have 1-1 records, showing the competitive nature of the conference from the get-go. Only the unbeaten Evessa and the Shining Suns (0-2) don’t have .500 records entering Week 2.
Home sweet home: The Happinets play six of their first eight games at home. This gives them the ideal opportunity to strength their bond with the local fans early in the season.
“The boosters’ support gave the team a great feeling,” Pierce said after 3,152 spectators watched the opener last Saturday in Akita. That’s how pro sports should be.”
Quotable: “It’s great to watch him out here. It was his first game, he had a little bit of the jitters, but he’s going to blossom this year. He’s a great player.”
— Butorac, analyzing Sawaguchi’s potential after Saturday’s game.
Upcoming games: This weekend’s matchups are as follows: Shimane vs. Oita, Sendai vs. Tokyo, Niigata vs. Akita, Hamamatsu vs. Toyama, Kyoto vs. Ryukyu, Miyazaki vs. Shiga, Takamatsu vs. Osaka and Fukuoka vs. Saitama.
Niigata, coming off a Final Four appearance last season, and Tokyo, now led by ex-NBA coach Bob Hill, make their season debuts on Saturday.
Player of the Week: Hopson earned the season’s first Lawson/Ponta MVP Award, helping the 89ers earn a pair of wins. The Idaho product had 35 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four assists on Saturday, followed by a 33-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist effort a day later.
Closing commentary: This reporter admires commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi’s passion for the game and his vision for the league. This doesn’t mean, however, that he’s the ideal lead analyst for bj-league telecasts. (He worked Saturday’s Akita-Sendai game for NHK.)
Yes, it’s sensible for Kawachi to remain an occasional halftime guest during telecasts and offer his opinions on the various issues and challenges facing the league, as well as the players, coaches and teams. But this much is clear: Kawachi’s point of view will rarely include critical comments about players, teams, in-game tactics and officiating. It’s the job of a commentator to do these things; it’s a disservice to viewers if a commentator can’t or won’t do these things.
Therefore, sooner rather than later, Kawachi, who’s essentially an on-air cheerleader, would be wise to step aside and let others fill the valuable role of game analysts, especially since the league’s rapid expansion has created the need for more on-air talent.
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