The Ryukyu Golden Kings, coming off a third consecutive Final Four appearance, look poised to make another run at a championship.
The Okinawa-based club, guided by fourth-year coach Dai Oketani, has won five of six road contests, in this season’s first five weeks. The Golden Kings (6-2 overall) found a way to win on Sunday despite Saitama Broncos star John “Helicopter” Humphrey’s 40-point effort before a rowdy crowd in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, that cheered wildly every time he scored a basket.
Broncos coach Dean Murray, a newcomer to the bj-league, knows that the Golden Kings will give every foe a tough matchup this season.
“They’ve got some veteran players on that team that have been around, that have been in the trenches and been in clutch situations,” Murray said in a post-game interview on Sunday.
Murray spoke about the addition of point guard Narito Namizato and talented forward Reggie Okosa and Kings linchpin Anthony McHenry as keys to their success to date.
“They have a good balance on their team,” Murray said of Ryukyu. “They have good inside-outside (play).
“They are going to be a team that’s going to have a good chance to be there at the end of the season.”
Ryukyu big man Jeff Newton, a three-time title winner with the Osaka Evessa before joining the Golden Kings in 2008 and leading the franchise to a championship in its second season, believes his team has the right mix of players to be in the hunt for a title in May.
“We are a team with a lot of experienced guys, a lot of proven winners,” Newton said Sunday.
Above all, Ryukyu’s fearless play puts it on a short list of teams with true championship potential this season. In short, the team understands how to stay focused for 40 minutes and make plays that lead to wins.
“We don’t get rattled,” said Newton, the only four-time champion in league history. “We take it one play at a time, one possession at a time, and when a guy’s having a night like ‘Helicopter’ had tonight, you’ve got to grind it out for every possession.”
Like Newton, Humphrey, previously a Tokyo Apache star, became a standout in the league’s inaugural season (2005-06), and the former knows the high-scoring Bronco thrives on scoring in bunches.
“We’ve seen it before in this league, man, and when he gets going, there’s almost nothing you can do to stop him,” Newton said.
The soft-spoken Newton is recognized throughout the league for his leadership and quiet confidence. He doesn’t gloat over individual statistics, but does take satisfaction in getting the job done and doing things that post players want to do; example: get 20 points and 10 rebounds, his Sunday totals.
Simply put, he said, those numbers were pleasing to him “because we won.”
As a newcomer to the bj-league, Namizato has made an instant impact for Ryukyu and fits nicely into the team’s rotation. He’s also gained his teammates’ trust, and as Newton noted, “the confidence level in him is sky high, man.”
Last weekend, Toyama’s Masashi Joho had a 33-point game against Iwate, Osaka’s Cohey Aoki scored 26 against Kyoto and Shimane’s Jumpei Nakama had a 19-point effort against Shiga.
The three ex-Apache players are proven scorers, and Namizato has shown that he’s capable of producing similar results.
“He’s good enough to come out and prove it against these veteran guys every night,” Newton said of the 22-year-old Namizato. “I’m excited to see him as the season goes on. He’s got a lot of talent.
“Our team is so spread out talent-wise that it’s not going to be on him to score that many points every night,” added Newton. “But he’s going to have a game here or there where he’s going to bust it wide open for one of those big games.”
The Golden Kings retooled their rotation by adding Namizato and veteran forwards Dzaflo Larkai and Okosa in the offseason, but their overall philosophy remains the same.
“Every game we want to get defensive stops and run,” Newton said. “That’s basically our whole thing.”
Shooting guard Naoto Kosuge, who played for Niigata for five seasons before joining Ryukyu in 2010, said the Golden Kings have the proper focus to win regardless of where the game is held.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a home game or a road game,” said Kosuge, the 2007-08 All-Star Game MVP. “To earn a championship, we are going to focus on one game at a time. That’s our mind-set.”
Catching up with . . . John Humphrey: After being out of the bj-league for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, the ever-popular Humphrey rejoined ex-Tokyo teammate Darin Satoshi Maki this season on the new-look Broncos.
Now playing for a franchise that has never had a winning season in the bj-league’s six-season history, Humphrey points out that Saitama needs to make lock-down defense its top priority, its trademark for the 52-game season.
“I don’t think it is where it needs to be,” Humphrey said, assessing his team’s defensive performance through eight games, which included three victories and five defeats.
“To get a must stop, it’s hard for us right now. But I think everybody’s willing to put forth the effort. Defense is about heart. . . . It doesn’t matter who’s bigger than you.
“I grew up playing against bigger guys all the time. It’s all about heart.”
To play dominating defense, he added, a player’s focus must be this: “I’m not going to let him score on me this time or make it difficult.”
He added: “And that’s my job: to bring that toughness to this team.”
A look at the Hannaryz: After helping Osaka earned two wins in as many days over Kyoto last weekend, Evessa forward Lynn Washington reflected on facing ex-NBA center Lance Allred and forward Rick Rickert, a former draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the challenge that the imposing Hannaryz front line poses for other teams.
“He is strong and physical,” Washington said of the 211-cm Allred. “He and Rickert work well in high-low situations. His main strengths are his jump shot and his basketball IQ.”
The Hannaryz, now in their third season, have achieved greater stability than in their first two seasons under head coaches David Benoit and Kazuto Aono, according to Washington. He credited new coach Honoo Hamaguchi with bringing needed changes and a winning attitude to Kyoto.
“Hamaguchi has changed the culture of the Kyoto Hannaryz,” Washington said. “David Benoit and his assistant (Aono, who replaced Benoit) did not max out his potential with the situation in Kyoto, Coach Honoo is and will do a great job.”
Around the league: Through Sunday, the league’s top 10 Japanese scorers are: Toyama guard Masashi Joho (15.1 ppg, 25th in the league), Aoki and Namizato (13.8 and 31st), Iwate’s Makoto Sawaguchi (13.4 and 35th), Niigata’s Kimitake Sato (13.0 and 41st), Miyazaki’s Taishiro Shimizu (12.6 and 45th), Shiga’s Yu Okada (11.4 and 54), Fukuoka’s Akitomo Takeno (11.3 and 55th), Yokohama’s Kenji Yamada (10.9 and 58th), Iwate’s Yoshiaki Yamamoto and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa’s Shoji Nakanishi (10.4 and 59th). …
A Miyazaki team spokesman told The Japan Times on Wednesday that five females participated in a cheerleader tryout in September, but the team opted against fielding a cheer squad this season. It was a cost-cutting measure, the team spokesman said. To a man, though, the move can’t help the team market itself in Miyazaki and throughout Kyushu, especially at a time when it is struggling to attract crowds of more than 1,000 for games. . . .
Yokohama coach Reggie Geary and players Justin Burrell, Chas McFarland, Marcus Simmons and Giyon Shey were special guests at a Tokyo American Club dinner held on Monday at Cafe Med in Minato Ward, Tokyo.
League accolades: Chiba guard Maurice Hargrow was named the Lawson/Ponta MVP for October, the league announced on Tuesday. Hargrow averaged 22.0 points in six games in the expansion team’s first month of play, helping the Jets go 5-1.
Joho, who had 33- and 15-point games in the Grouses’ weekend sweep of the visiting Big Bulls, is the Player of the Week, the league announced.
Upcoming schedule: The Kyoto-Oita series began on Thursday at Hannaryz Arena. Chiba plays host to Akita on Friday and Saturday, as the teams, tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with 6-2 records, square off for the second straight weekend. Fukuoka takes on visiting Takamatsu, a league-worst 0-8, in another Friday-Saturday series.
Osaka, sitting atop the Western Conference at 7-1, takes on Shiga, starting on Saturday. Other Saturday-Sunday series include Iwate vs. Shinshu, Sendai vs. Toyama, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Saitama, Miyazaki vs. Ryukyu and Shimane vs. Niigata.
Injury report: Yokohama captain and guard Masayuki Kabaya, sidelined for several weeks with a lower leg injury, is expected to return to the lineup on Nov. 22, B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary said.
All-Star voting: Fan Voting has started for the 2011-12 All-Star Game, which will be held Jan. 15 at Saitama Super Arena. Fans will select the five starters for both conferences. Voting continues through Dec. 4.
To vote, visit the bj-league’s website and cast your votes here: vote.bj-allstar.com/2011/bj/vote/vote.html
Back in Japan: As expected, Akita has signed guard/forward Ricky Woods and released guard Kenny Taylor, the team announced on Tuesday. Woods, a Southeastern University product like Happinets point guard Michael Gardener, played for Oita in 2009-10 and averaged 24.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals for then-coach Brian Rowsom’s club. Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura said Woods’ aggressive play and strength as an inside scorer make him a strong addition to the team.
Quotable: “He’s a big guy and he’s got all the moves of a small forward. And he’s got great touch around the basket, kind of like the touch (Shimane’s) Michael Parker shows around the basket. … And Reggie, nobody in this league can guard him one-on-one.” — Newton, describing Okosa’s skill set on offense.
Quotable, part II: “I told them I’ll come off the bench. I’ll scale my game back. All I want is a title. I’ve been the scoring champ. … I need a title. So if I need to score 40 points, I’ll do that. If I score five points and we win the game, I’m happy. I just want to win.” — Humphrey, discussing his role for the Broncos this season.
Quotable, part III: “We’re happy we got the split, and now we have to get ready for a tough weekend of games against Osaka.” — Shiga coach Alan Westover, speaking after his team’s series against Shimane.
Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to email@example.com