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Golden Kings, Evessa class of the West again

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Almost nothing remains the same in the Eastern Conference, as all 10 head coaches this season are in spots that they didn’t occupy at this time a year ago.

But in the Western Conference well-established stars Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa and Jeff Newton and Anthony McHenry of the Ryukyu Golden Kings have their teams primed for another run at the title.

The Evessa and the Shimane Susanoo Magic made big offseason moves, acquiring All-Stars Cohey Aoki and Michael Parker, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Oita HeatDevils, who publicly begged fans to donate cash to keep the team financially afloat last summer, added former league MVP Wendell White to a team that already features steady floor leader Matt Lottich and two-time Best Five guard Naoto Takushi.

This weekend, 16 teams will be in action, a week after six East clubs kicked off the season.

The matchups are as follows: Akita Northern Happinets vs. Oita, Niigata Albirex BB vs. Toyama Grouses, Saitama Broncos vs. Yokohama B-Corsairs, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix vs. Chiba Jets, Shiga Lakestars vs. Kyoto Hannaryz, Osaka vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows, Miyazaki Shining Suns vs. Shimane Susanoo Magic and Fukuoka vs. Ryukyu.

In the West, new coaches are in place in Shiga (Alan Westover, longtime assistant coach and later bench boss in Australia’s NBL), Kyoto (Honoo Hamaguchi, who led the Sendai 89ers from 2005 until March), Oita (Yukinori Suzuki, who retired as a HeatDevils guard to become head coach) and Takamatsu (Kenzo Maeda takes over after being promoted from assistant).

Ryukyu’s Dai Oketani is the dean of coaches in the West. He’s beginning his fourth season at the helm. The Golden Kings won a championship in his first season in charge (2008-09), and team expectations are the same each season: another title.
The Kings lost to Hamamatsu in last May’s championship game and are focused on returning to Ariake Colosseum to get another shot.

Osaka’s Ryan Blackwell took over as sideline supervisor last season, replacing Kensaku Tennichi, who had won three championships during his Evessa tenure. A trip to the Final Four gave Blackwell’s team a sense of accomplishment and a target for this season, too.

In the nine-team Western Conference, there are no expansion clubs this season. This season’s four expansion clubs all belong to the Eastern Conference, which gives the West a different vibe this season.

A few key changes to keep an eye on:

After two banner seasons with the Lakestars, tough-as-nails power forward Gary Hamilton joined the Rizing Fukuoka, instantly becoming the team’s most recognized import player and helping fill the void left by Parker.

Also, Shiga did not re-sign team leader Mikey Marshall, a key member of the Evessa’s third title-winning team, and he is now out of the bj-league.

The Rizing added Carlos Dixon, whose scoring touch helped the Golden Kings reach the Final Four last season. They lost Nile Murry to the Niigata Albirex BB, but have Akitomo Takeno, who canned a league-best 46 percent of his 3-point shots last season, back in the fold.

The Lakestars will also be without gritty forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano while he recuperates from knee surgery. The team doesn’t expect him back on the court until December. But newcomers Ray Nixon, a key player for the Phoenix last season, and three-time All-Star Julius Ashby add productivity to the frontcourt.

Elsewhere, Osaka added guard Satoshi Takeda, a member of the team’s 2005-06 championship squad, who played for the Five Arrows for the past five seasons. He averaged double digits in scoring in each of the past two seasons.

Shimane sideline supervisor Zeljko Pavlicevic implemented his system last season, and now the team welcomes Parker and ex-Apache shooting guard Jumpei Nakama to the mix. Among the returning standouts are forwards Reggie Golson and shot-blocking savant Jeral Davis, with guards Edward Yamamoto, Koki Yabuuchi and Tatsuhiro Yokoo having benefited from a year under Pavlicevic’s tutelage.

The Five Arrows, coming off a 10-38 season, are hoping to be respectable this season. But it remains to be seen if the club can do so after back-to-back disastrous seasons.

For Oita, forward T.J. Cummings, whose father Terry had a long NBA career, is a promising newcomer.

The Shining Suns put their inaugural 13-37 season behind them with lessons learned along the way under rookie coach Koto Toyama. Getting several newcomers to fill important roles early will be a key for the team.

Ryukyu, a model of consistency under Oketani’s watchful eye, has a balanced, deep collection of talent led by four-time champion Newton in the post, McHenry on the wing or wherever his athleticism can help the team, and a backcourt rotation that includes Shigeyuki Kinjo, Tsubasa Yonamine, Naoto Kosuge and promising 22-year-old Narito Namizato.

Outlook from Kyoto: In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Kyoto Hannaryz center Lance Allred, who played for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008, expressed his views on a number of topics, including the team’s preparations for the upcoming season.

Off the court, he’s developed a fondness for his surroundings, too.

“Kyoto is fabulous. I love the city, the culture,” Allred said. “It is nice to be right in the middle of such a lively city only to be five minutes via car ride from a calm relaxing hike up in the mountains.”

Looking at the makeup of the team, he said the Hannaryz are constructing a solid squad, especially on defense.

“Coach expects us to be the best help/rotating defensive team in the league and I agree with him and feel we should be up there as far as defensive expectations,” Allred said. “Offensively, we are older, experienced and smart. He is not too worried about us there, as we know we can score. The defense is our No. 1 priority and then offense will take care of itself.”

For Allred, who has also played in the NBA Development League, paying attention to the pace of the game will be a top priority.

“Aside from a few different NBA rules, like illegal defense and such, the bj-league is pretty fast paced and can compare with the pace of the NBA Development League. It is by far the fastest paced basketball I have ever played outside of the US. And I like that. I still like playing smart basketball, but I also like to push it when we can.

“Europe for example, is very slow and methodical and (players) rarely look to pass the ball up ahead, instead wanting to bring it up and organize a set offense. For the Kyoto Hannaryz, we expect to score a lot of points off of our defense, forcing teams to take tough shots, leading to good rebounds for us on our way to a fast break and so on…”

Allred described the Hannaryz as a veteran team, saying the average age of its players is 30. Kyoto’s veteran players include guard Haruyuki Ishibashi (age 37), guard Naoto Nakamura (35), forward Jermaine Boyette (32), forward and ex-Minnesota Timberwolves draft pick Rick Rickert (28), forward Yusuke Inoue (29), swingman Kyosuke Setoyama (29) and forward Taizo Kawabe (29). This experience will affect the way the players handle the rigors of a long season.

“We have all been around,” Allred said. “We don’t take much stock in talking, yelling (and) walking around with a faux limp/swagger. Ours is more of the quiet kind. Instead of wasting our energy trying to get everyone to think of us a certain way, we will simply not care what people think and let our work on the court do the talking for us.”

So how did Allred view the team’s preseason action, including a Sept. 23 exhibition contest against the Evessa? Did it go well?

“Our preseason games were simply that: preseason games,” Allred said. “Coach Honoo was more interested in working to find what combinations of players worked on the court, to prepare for the season, rather than trying to run up the score and win all our preseason games, plus we also had practices those days as well.

“Coach Honoo has high expectations of us, as does the front office, president, CEO and even the fans. We have high expectations of ourselves. We were brought here to win. We don’t think we are better than everyone else, but there are high expectations of us, and with that, comes responsibility.”

Asked to give a quick analysis of his team’s Japanese players, Allred noted that Setoyama and Nakamura have looked impressive to date. He said, “Naoto is one of the most consistent shooters I have ever seen.”

Around the league: This question was posed to a person with a pulse on the basketball scene on both sides of the Pacific: Will any bj-league team fork over the cash to get an NBA guy over here during the lockout?

“Absolutely not,” the source said. “Only the (Tokyo) Apache last season might have tried it. The lockout comes a year too late.” …

Another veteran observer was not impressed with the officiating over the weekend at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, where the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix played their season-opening games.

“I was absolutely shocked by the type of officiating I saw, with 57 free throws attempted in Game 1 and 40 in Game 2,” he said Thursday. “Ninety-seven free-throw attempts in two games? There was no flow to the games. As a fan, I felt like I was watching the officials and not the game being played by basketball players.

“If that is a sign of how all the games are going to be called, then it will definitely be ridiculous.”

Here’s one man’s view on the situation: Rapid expansion — seven new teams over two seasons — creates a demand for more game officials, several of whom are not experienced or not necessarily pro-level officials. Of this season’s 36 game officials, seven are new to the bj-league. There will be growing pains.

Another source weighed in on the discussion, analyzing all six opening weekend games to make a few points.

He broke it down this way:

*”One game or one series doesn’t tell you much.”

*”(For) teams that preach defense first, that usually means a slow down game with lots of fouls. See game one of Yokohama-Hamamatsu. Team style is often the biggest predictor of how the games will be called.”

*”Teams usually play preseason games to adjust to officiating among other things. Yokohama did not (play preseason games).

*”New players, coaches, teams always take a while to adjust to how the games are called.”

Here, then, is a look at fouls and free throws for each of the six games last weekend:

Iwate vs. Sendai: Saturday’s game had 34 fouls and 35 combined free throws; Sunday’s numbers were 38 and 32.

Niigata vs. Shinshu: There were 46 fouls and 52 free throws in the opener, with 41 and 45 in the rematch.

Yokohama-Hamamatsu: Officials called 41 fouls in the opener and 57 foul shots were taken; a day later, those numbers were 36 and 40.


Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp