It only took two games for Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix bench boss Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino to decide that personnel changes needed to be made.
He admitted as much recently, reflecting on back-to-back road losses to open the season against the Akita Northern Happinets, who are led by former Phoenix sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura.
That prompted Higashino and team management to pursue guard Jermaine Dixon and forward Ray Nixon, both of whom had played for the club during its last championship season, 2010-11.
Before the dynamic duo’s arrival, the Phoenix were 1-3. Now, they are at .500. A step in the right direction.
Dixon and Nixon made their season debuts last weekend against the Rizing Fukuoka, and the Phoenix defeated the Rizing Fukuoka 72-57 and 68-67 to improve to 3-3 overall. To make room for Dixon and Nixon, the Phoenix released point guard Jamelle Barrett and forward Kevin Young. Both players struggled offensively during Hamamatsu’s first two series.
Barrett shot 15-for-48 from the field in the first two series, including against the Shiga Lakestars on Oct. 12-13, for 10.3 ppg. Young was 14-for-37 and posted a 9.5-ppg average in the Phoenix’s first four games.
Dixon, who played for Gunma last season, had a major hand in Hamamatsu’s 68-67 triumph on Sunday, scoring a team-best 21 points and collecting four steals, while Nixon added seven points, four steals and three assists. In the series opener, Dixon scored 17 points with four assists in his season debut in Japan and Nixon netted six points in the 15-point win.
Looking back on the weekend, Higashino told The Japan Times, “It was good to win both games against Fukuoka, but our chemistry is not 100 percent yet.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve made to change players after the Akita games. We’re now back to even and going to restart the season, I feel.”
While the Phoenix are in the thick of things in the Western Conference standings, the team is undergoing a metamorphosis. Mainstays from the championship squads of 2009-10 and 2010-11 include center Atsuya Ota and guard Masahiro Oguchi, plus Dixon and Nixon are back from that era. The rest of the squad has been cobbled together piece by piece.
Bruising forward/center Cyrus Tate, schooled on the hard knocks of Big Ten hoops while at the University of Iowa, is a proven double-double producer in the low post, with 12.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Newcomer Aki Chambers, a 23-year-old guard with Japanese and American heritage, is averaging 15.0 ppg, including a season-best 21-point effort against Shiga on Oct. 13. He attended NAIA school University of California, Merced before turning pro. He’s getting attention around the league for his scoring and playmaking ability in the early going.
In May, Higashino spoke highly of Chambers, whom the Phoenix picked up via the draft. He has made an impact so far.
Veteran guard Shinnosuke Oishi, a proven perimeter threat, is back for a second season and is contributing 6.5 ppg.
Also vying for playing time are Keisuke Yahata, Masaki Yamada, Toshifumi Kawamitsu and Shinya Murakami.
A big test comes this weekend for Higashino’s retooled lineup with two games on the road against the 4-0 Kyoto Hannaryz.
Around the league: Here’s one sign of parity in the ninth-year circuit: Of the 21 teams, 15 have two or more losses, with only three weeks in the books. . . . Former Tokyo Apache teammates John “Helicopter” Humphrey of the Saitama Broncos and Masashi Joho of the Toyama Grouses are Nos. 1 and 2 on the league’s scoring chart, averaging 23.8 and 22.5 points per game, respectively. . . . In addition to perennial All-Star Joho, three more Japanese are in the top 10 in scoring average: Tokyo’s Yuji Ide (fourth, 20.3), Shinshu’s Shota Konno (fifth, 20.0) and Yokohama’s Masayuki Kabaya (tied for ninth, 17.8). . . . Akita’s Ruben Boykin is the top rebounder (14.2 per game), followed by Toyama’s Sam Willard (14.0). . . .
Three players are averaging 7.0 or more assists per game: Osaka’s Kevin Galloway (7.8), Akita’s Yuki Togashi (7.2) and Sendai’s Takehiko Shimura (7.0). . . .
Oita guard Taishiro Shimizu has logged the most court time (225 minutes) to date.
Hot shooters: Takamatsu’s Yusuke Kodera is shooting 60 percent (12-for-20) from 3-point range, leading the league in that category through Sunday. Iwate’s Kenichi Takahashi (7-for-14), Yokohama’s Masayuki Kabaya (7-for-14) and Kyoto’s David Palmer (10-for-20) are tied for second at 50 percent.
Efficiency inside: Ryukyu big man Kibwe Trim has made 31 of 44 shots from 2-point range, good for a league-high 70.5 percent. A native of San Juan, Trinidad, Trim, 29, played college ball at Sacred Heart, a Northeast Conference school. He suited up for the Kyoto Hannaryz in 2010-11.
Upcoming schedule: Two series get under way on Friday — Yokohama vs. Sendai and Oita vs. Nara — while the other eight weekend matchups commence on Saturday. The rest of the series are as follows: Iwate vs. Toyama, Akita vs. Shinshu, Niigata vs. Gunma, Tokyo vs. Aomori, Kyoto vs. Hamamatsu, Osaka vs. Saitama, Takamatsu vs. Shimane and Ryukyu vs. Fukuoka.
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