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Nara, Aomori enter uncharted territory as expansion squads

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

History will unfold for two new franchises on Saturday.

And excitement is carrying the Nara Bambitious and Aomori Wat’s into their inaugural season.

Bambitious guard Takuma Yamashiro and Wat’s forward Daisuke Takaoka both spoke during a Monday news conference about their teams’ eagerness to get the season started and give fans something to talk about.

It all begins at tipoff, when Aomori faces the visiting Iwate Big Bulls (4 p.m. start) and the Bambitious take on the host Osaka Evessa (6 p.m.).

“Our team is pretty young and we have a lot of players that don’t have a lot of experience on this team, so hopefully I can (provide leadership),” said Yamashiro, who has previously suited up for Saitama, Toyama and Ryukyu in a bj-league career that began in the 2007-08 season.

Nara’s youthful exuberance is a motivational factor, Yamashiro admitted.

“I don’t want to be outrun by them,” the 28-year-old Okinawan said of his teammates.

In putting the building blocks of the new team into place, Bambitious bench boss Koto Toyama, who led the Golden Kings to a league-record 42-10 campaign last season, has commanded respect from his club. (Still only 30 years old, Toyama has three seasons under his belt as a bj-league head coach, including experience leading the now-defunct Miyazaki squad as an expansion team to draw upon.)

“One of our biggest strengths is Coach Toyama,” Yamashiro told The Japan Times.

“He asks us to play aggressive defense . . . that’s one of the things that will be our strengths.”

Looking ahead to the season, Yamashiro said the potential is there for team success.

“We have a lot of good foreigners, import players, and Japanese players and all of us get to play, too.”

Oklahoma State product Anthony Brown is expected to spearhead the team’s inside attack. The 203-cm post player’s stellar effort in the bj Challenge Cup in Shiga earned him a tournament MVP honor and dished out a taste of what he could provide for the first-year club.

Yamashiro observed that the veteran forward gives the team “an inside presence.” Without his rebounds and other key contributions, “we wouldn’t be able to play the way we want to play,” Yamashiro said.

In the countdown to their opening game, Bambitious players are soaking up the excitement that has greeted them throughout Nara Prefecture.

“Obviously, that will be a historic moment (on Saturday), so hopefully with the boosters we can share that excitement . . . and show a lot of energy.”

Swingman Jamar Abrams (East Carolina), guards Joe Chapman (Marquette), Ryo Inagaki and Tatsuya Suzuki and forward Jumpei Honda are among the players Toyama will rotate in and out as the team seeks to establish its identity.

For Aomori, the buildup to the season opener has also been a positive experience despite defeats in a pair of exhibition games.

“Obviously, we are a new team and not used to playing games together and that brings up issues, but potential-wise, one game we were like 12 or 13 points behind but we came back to catch up with the opponent,” Takaoka said.

This illustrates the team’s explosive offense, he said, but noted there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Longtime JBL guard-turned coach Koju Munakata has done a credible job of building the Wat’s from scratch, Takaoka said.

The coach’s personality is shining through in his players’ approach to the game. Or as Takaoka put it: “He has a knack for the game . . . and he teaches us to play smart basketball,” before adding this qualifier: “We learn a lot as a team under the leadership of Coach Munakata.”

Indeed, the Wat’s have lofty ambitions for an expansion franchise: aiming to challenge for a playoff berth.

Five men simultaneously committed to team defense is a staple of Munakata’s playbook, according to Takaoka. That, he said, will enable Aomori to succeed.

The roster includes several names familiar around the league: guard/forward Makoto Sawaguchi, guard Yuki Kitamuki, center Anthony Kent, forward Yuta Kojima, smooth-shooting forward Gordon Klaiber and powerful post player Abdullahi Kuso. It also features versatile newcomer Eric May, who wrapped up his collegiate career at Iowa in the spring.

The Gazette, a newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, summed up May’s final season with the Hawkeyes this way: “He provided steady leadership and was the team’s most explosive dunker.”

As for the team’s notoriety in the region, Takaoka, who starred for the Sendai 89ers from 2009-13 before joining Aomori, recognizes it will take time for team staff’s promotional efforts to paid dividends.

“For sure, these guys are working hard to make our team more famous,” he said.

Upcoming schedule: In addition to the aforementioned Aomori-Iwate and Osaka-Nara series, here’s the opening weekend’s full slate of matchups, with Oita playing host to Ryukyu, starting Friday: Akita vs. Hamamatsu, Niigata vs. Sendai, Gunma vs. Saitama, Shimane vs. Shiga, Takamatsu vs. Fukuoka.

The other two-game series all begin on Saturday.

New addition: Big man Shawn Malloy has joined the Shimane Susanoo Magic, it was announced this week. He helped the Yokohama B-Corsairs win a title last season.

“I am happy to join the Shimane family and we will do our best to compete for a championship,” Malloy said in a statement.

In the works: The upcoming Hoop Scoop column, a Japan Times online exclusive, features an interview with B-Corsairs guard Masayuki Kabaya, the Final Four MVP last season, as he looks ahead to the new-look team’s challenges coming off a title-winning campaign.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.