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Williams says changing Saitama track record not easy

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Tracy Williams is the Saitama Broncos’ eighth head coach since the team entered the bj-league in 2005. Only ex-NBA forward David Benoit lasted more than one season during his time at the helm — 2006-08 — and the Broncos were 36-48 in those two campaigns.

Team president Toshihiko Narita has a long history of mediocrity in the bj-league, with a revolving cast of players, coaches and team personnel. And so, after splitting a two-game series against the visiting Toyama Grouses last weekend, Saitama (2-8) is in a familiar position: facing an uphill battle to reach the playoffs.

In fact, after the Broncos-Grouses game at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon, Williams declared that the next few weeks are “do-or-die time” for his club.

Indeed, unless the Eastern Conference squad starts winning on a consistent basis now, the Broncos will suffer their eighth consecutive non-winning, non-playoff season in the bj-league.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve been on a do-or-die (mind-set) for a few weeks now as far as creating a playoff scenario for us that we needed to win early here,” Williams said bluntly. “Granted, again, when you’ve got your leading scorer and rebounder (John Humphrey) out, that creates some adversity there for us. But we’re professional athletes; we’re supposed to get over that. We’re supposed to figure a way out to get that done.

“We’ve got to come out and we need to start winning like immediately after this break, and I don’t mean splitting games, with them winning one and losing one. We need to come out with a sense of urgency, I think, from now on until the end of the season. I think we should all play with a sense of urgency, practice with a sense of urgency, and trust me we will.”

He added: “We will have a sense of urgency that this world has never seen, so yes, we will take this break. But we won’t be on break as far as the work in practice. And we’ll come back against Tokyo, a team that we had a lot of success against in the preseason, and take advantage of that and get two wins down there.”

Humphrey (back injury) has missed the past two weekends, but is expected back for the Broncos’ road trip against the expansion Cinq Reves on Dec. 1-2. He is the league’s leading scorer at 25.0 points per game.

Williams, a former Harlem Globetrotters player, recognizes that team success won’t be easy for a franchise with a tradition of losing.

“My job is probably different than a lot of coaches in this league, because I’m trying to change a whole mind-set, a whole approach to the game itself,” Williams told reporters. “I’m trying to change their thinking from ‘I hope we win’ to ‘I know we’ll win’ and it’s easier to change physically than it is mentally. And so my biggest part of my job is to change a culture. We’ve never won here, and now we are trying to win the championship . . . so that’s a hurdle.

“I’m up for the task, I’m up for it. I’m not afraid of it. I believe we are going to do it, but right now in our development as a team, our Japanese players are our best players and I judge that on the fact how hard they work, how hard they prepare to come into these games, but I’ve got to get them to think they can be the best players period, not just the best Japanese players, but the best players on the court.

“To win the championship, you’ve got to work harder than everybody else, and we will work harder than everybody else, or you won’t be playing.”

The Broncos started five Japanese players in the series opener, a move Williams said was made to reward those who are exerting the most effort and working hardest for the team, and they edged the Grouses 82-81.

A day later, Saitama started four Japanese and forward Dameion Baker, a newcomer, and Toyama controlled key stretches of the contests and handed the hosts their eighth loss, denying them their first winning streak of the young season.

“The Japanese players at this point are our hardest workers, and I believe that whoever works the hardest is going to play the most,” Williams said.

Point guard Takuma Yamashiro has been a solid addition for the Broncos, averaging 12.2 ppg, with 56 assists and 18 turnovers. He’s converted 25 of 28 free throws. Yamashiro played in five games for the Ryukyu Golden Kings in 2007-08, the franchise’s first season, and was out of the bj-league until 2010, when he joined Toyama. In two seasons with the Grouses, the 167-cm Okinawa native played limited minutes for the club.

Williams has been impressed with Yamashiro’s effort and dedication.

“From the first day when I got here watching Yamashiro play, just the way he prepared, man, he came in, and just worked from Day One,” the coach said. “He works extremely hard on his game and what he lacks in stature or height he really makes up for with determination, hard work ethic and he wants to be a student of the game, too. He wants to learn. I love him. Anywhere I would coach in the world, I would like to have him.”

Another Saitama newcomer, forward Yuki Nobuhira, is an important part of Williams’ rebuilding efforts for the team. Nobuhira had his two best games of the season last weekend. He had 20 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals in the opener, and 12 points, five boards, five assists and one block in the finale. He’s averaging 4.6 ppg.

“Nobu, is a versatile player. He can play a lot of positions … and most importantly, he can guard a lot of positions,” Williams noted. “I want him to have as much confidence in himself as I have in him. Sometimes I think I believe in him a little more than he believes in himself. But as the season progresses he’s going to just get better and better, I think.”

Humphrey has championship game experience, having suited up for coach Joe Bryant’s Tokyo Apache club in 2007-08 and 2008-09. His ex-Apache teammate Baker is back in the bj-league after a three-season absence. Nevertheless, the versatile Baker remains another key member of the rotation since first donning a Saitama uniform on Nov. 3.

“For Baker, the biggest thing for him right now, he got here late, he’s got to get in shape,” Williams said. “He’s got to get into conditioning where I want him to be because he’s got to play hard defense, he’s got to run the floor. He’s not where I want him to be at right now.

He’s at about 55 percent “of where I need him to be,” the coach added. “He’s got to guard guys bigger than him, he’s got to play outside, he’s got to do a lot of different things. So he’s got a lot of work to do, but I’m expecting him to get it done.’

Ongoing crisis: The Oita HeatDevils don’t have the ¥7 million needed to pay players and team staff, 19 people in total, their November salaries, according to published reports. Payment has been delayed, the team announced on Wednesday.

The team held public donation drives last weekend at The Sports Authority and JR Beppu Station in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, and raised ¥2 million to help meet its financial obligations.

The HeatDevils are actively seeking news sponsors by the end of the month, a team spokesman said.

If the team cannot come up with the cash it needs, the HeatDevils, one of the league’s original six teams, may be forced to suspend operations or go out of business. And, in the meantime, the team plans to cut a few players to lower payroll.

League spokesman Akihiro Ejiima told The Japan Times on Thursday it will closely examine the issue, but made no further comment on what the league would do if Oita pulled the plug on its season.

Upcoming games: Two series tip off on Friday — Yokohama (6-4) vs. Iwate (10-2) and Osaka (1-7) vs. Shimane (7-5). The rest of the weekend’s action tips off on Saturday: Kyoto (4-8) vs. Takamatsu (4-6), Gunma (1-11) vs. Sendai (3-7), Hamamatsu Higashimikawa (8-6) vs. Shiga (6-6), Shinshu (7-5) vs. Tokyo (5-7), Oita (8-4) vs. Miyazaki (1-11), Akita (8-2) vs. Chiba (4-6), Toyama (9-5) vs. Niigata (8-4) and Ryukyu (10-0) vs. Fukuoka (8-4).

Weekly honor: Rizing forward Reggie Warren helped the Kyushu club sweep the Evessa last weekend and earned the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award, it was announced on Tuesday.

The West Florida product had season-best totals in points (28) and rebounds (20) and two blocks on Saturday, followed by 16 points and 14 boards on Sunday. Warren is averaging 16.2 points and 13 rebounds per game.

Balanced scoring: In winning their first 10 games, the Golden Kings have had four leading scorers: Terrance Woodbury (five times), Anthony McHenry (three times), Narito Namizato (once, a team-high 33 points to date) and Morihisa Yamauchi (once)

Where are they now?: Former Oita and Ryukyu big man Chris Ayer has joined the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League. Maine’s regular season opener is on Friday against the Canton Charge.

Grouses update: Toyama forward Angel Garcia, a 209-cm Puerto Rican, scored a season-best 39 points on Sunday, draining 6 of 9 3-pointers in an 89-77 win over Saitama. After the victory, Garcia told reporters the team’s primary focus should be on defense in the weeks to come.

“I’d say we’ve got a really, really good offense. Everybody can score the ball,” Garcia said. “We’ve definitely got to work on defense, especially me I’ve got to work on my defense, too. We get some stops on defense. We always get chances to spread the lead by 10, 12 points, but only when we get stops. We’ve got to keep doing that as a team and get some more stops on defense.”

In his first season in the bj-league, Garcia believes his veteran coach, Bob Nash, a former NBA player, is the right man to lead the Grouses to the playoffs.

“He played in college, he played in the NBA. He knows about basketball, he’s been doing it for awhile,” Garcia said of the first-year Toyama bench boss. “He knows what he’s talking about and he’s a really good coach.”

With nine victories in 14 games, the Grouses are playing at a level as well as, or perhaps better, than any squad in the franchise’s previous six seasons. Nash, however, refuses to say that the team can’t continue to improve.

“I’m like (San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg) Popovich, I’m never happy. He’s never happy with his team because there’s always more that they can give, and if I become satisfied and happy, then that means that I’m complacent,” Nash said on Sunday. “I’m going to always push our guys to do better. I’d much rather be 9-5 than 5-9. That’s obvious.

“We had a 10-game evaluation that our players went through. After 10 games, where are we now and what can we do to get better? And that’s something that the team and I discussed with each player and each situation and how we can get better, and I think we’re making progress.”

One key for the Grouses has been the ever-present focus on the upcoming game, not on past triumphs or setbacks.

“I’m talking about today’s game, I’m not talking about yesterday’s game,” Nash blurted out after Sunday’s contest. “We played well today, that’s all that matters. Yesterday, Saitama played extremely well and they won the game. Today we had to refocus, had to come back in here and dedicate ourselves to playing the way we know we’ve trained every day to play, and today we did a good job.”

Speaking to Pavlicevic: With seven victories in 12 games, Shimane has set a solid foundation for the season.

Third-year coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, the longest-serving current Western Conference bench boss, said he’s happy with the team’s effort to begin the season.

“As always, we could be better, but also much worse,” he told The Japan Times earlier this week.

The West is a strong conference, the Croatian coach said, citing defending champion Ryukyu, Hamamatsu and Oita as examples.

What are the Susanoo Magic’s strengths?

Pavlicevic said the team has strong chemistry and called Michael Parker a “good leader.”

“He’s working hard to get rebound, assists, steals and points and playing hard defense,” the coach observed. In addition, he said, frontcourt players B.J. Puckett (11.7 points) and Jeral Davis (13.1 points, 3.5 blocks) have been solid.

Among the team’s Japanese players, Yasuhisa Hikino, Shoei Nakama and Yuji Ide are gaining valuable experience, Pavlicevic added.

He said he’s pleased with the performance of guard Edward Yamamoto, who had a season-high 16 points on Sunday

“We’ll work hard and we will grow,” Pavlicevic said, “and I am happy when they are responding. … The offense has been pretty good and the defense can be better. Of course, these are points where you can improve — individual technique and better decisions.”

Around the league: Mike Bell has rejoined the Evessa, finalizing a move that has been in the works for weeks. The talented forward has routinely posted 20-point, 10-rebound games during past stints with the Evessa (last season), Sendai 89ers (2010-11) and Oita HeatDevils (2009-10). … Forward Larry Cox, who was shown the door by Osaka last month after the team dropped its first four games, has resurfaced in Saudi Arabia, playing for Uhud Medina.

By the numbers: Toyama guard Masashi Joho is the leading scorer (14.5 ppg) among the league’s Japanese players. Namizato is second (13.9) and Yokohama’s Masayuki Kabaya, who’s knocked down 25 of 57 3-point attempts, is third (13.1). Kyoto’s Yu Okada is next (13.0), followed by Saitama’s Yuki Kitamuki (12.8), Tokyo’s Cohey Aoki (12.3) and Yamashiro (12.2). … Sendai’s Takehiko Shimura has 50 assists and six turnovers to date. … Shinshu’s Takanori Goya is averaging a career-best 10.1 ppg and has made 19 of 23 foul shots; Aoki, meanwhile, is 26-for-27 at the charity stripe. Surprisingly, Goya is currently the leading vote-getter among East guards for the 2012-13 All-Star Game in Tokyo. Aoki, the league’s only six-time All-Star, is fifth as of press time. … Iwate’s Kenichi Takahashi, scoring 11.2 ppg, has buried 15 of 30 3s. … Kyoto’s Gyno Pomare has notched five consecutive double-doubles.

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