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Joho, Mito help propel Toyama to best start ever at 6-0

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Masashi Joho has an impressive track record of success in the bj-league, playing for four playoff-bound franchises — two-time champion Osaka Evessa, two-time champion runnerup Tokyo Apache, Shiga Lakestars and Toyama Grouses — in the league’s first eight seasons.

So he knows a thing or two about what it takes to excel in Japan’s first pro basketball league.

Now in his prime, the 31-year-old Joho remains a franchise cornerstone for the Grouses, who are 6-0 through Sunday, the best start in the eighth-year franchise’s history.

Asked to pinpoint key factors in the team’s strong start in an interview with The Japan Times on Tuesday, Joho said, “rebounding is better than last season. Sam (Willard) is doing a great job.”

Willard, the league’s No. 2 board man in 2012-13 at 14.0 rebounds a game while suiting up for Sendai, is again a top rebounder in his second season in Japan.

The Grouses, meanwhile, feature a 48-page playbook. And each player has a copy of the book, second-year bench boss Bob Nash revealed by telephone on Tuesday.

At practice and during games, “they know what to expect,” Nash pointed out.

That approach is working.

“We know coach’s basketball,” Joho said. “We are understanding (it).”

Accustomed to playing shooting guard throughout his pro career, Joho has shifted to point guard at times this season. The playmaking role suits him well, though he and backcourt mate Takeshi Mito can play both positions interchangeably.

“I feel good,” Joho said of his time at the point. “Mito can score. It’s good. Mito is getting better.”

Mito, a Toyama regular since 2008, is the team’s third-leading scorer (14.0 points per game) and has converted 34 of 60 shots from inside the arc. The Grouses have found ways to maximize his speed and lateral movement. Credit Nash for structuring the offense to take advantage of the complementary skills of Joho, Mito and forward Ira Brown.

Joho, coming off a season in which he averaged 13.8 ppg, remains a potent scorer. He’s currently No. 3 in the league at 20.3 ppg and is averaging just over seven free-throw attempts per game (43 total shots), getting to the line with regularity.

Before his team played its season opener last season, Nash vowed to use Mito and Joho together as his starting guards. Other teams often started at least one import guard, but Nash felt the team’s success would stem from the way Joho and Mito helped set the tone.

“Not to take anything away from (Niigata Albirex BB star) Nile Murry or anyone else in the league, but I think our Japanese guys are good and we’ll compete with anyone,” Nash said at the time. “They are going to have to guard our players; it’s going to work both ways.”

It’s worked.

So has the reliance on mainstay Ira Brown, a Gonzaga product, to be the team’s Mr. Versatility, guarding guards and frontcourt players with equal intensity and contributing in multiple facets of the game. Brown is a vital cog in the machine, averaging 17.5 points and 11.0 rebounds, both ninth-best totals in the 21-team league.

Brown leads the Grouses in minutes (217), steals (19) and blocked shots (10), and is No. 2 in assists (16) behind Mito, who has three more.

Bruising big man Willard has fit in well in the Toyama frontcourt, making his mark as the team’s top rebounder (13.3 per game, No. 3 in the league) and 9.3-ppg scorer. Fellow newcomer Josh Gross, a North Carolina-Greensboro alum, is averaging 8.0 ppg. Rookie Josh Benson, a University of Dayton product, is getting adjusted to the pro game, contributing 4.3 ppg to date.

Nash, 63, was a longtime assistant at the University of Hawaii, his alma mater, and then its head coach after his collegiate career, followed by time as an NBA forward. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He preaches fundamentals, especially on defense.

“Our main strength has got to be our team defense,” Nash declared five days before his team’s next game. “We are not a great one-on-one team defensively, so we have to get better in our system. . . . I’m really pleased with our defense so far.”

During their current six-game winning streak, the Grouses have beaten their foes (Saitama, Sendai and Iwate) by a combined 67 points, winning by eight, 10, nine, 17, 15 and eight points in succession.

“We had success last year and worked awful hard to put ourselves in a position to be successful,” Nash said, reflecting on Toyama’s first-ever trip to the second round of the playoffs and a 35-17 record in the regular season.

Team chemistry is a major focal points for the Grouses. Or as Nash put it: “Guys have to be willing to give up some of their individuality for the betterment of the team.” He characterized his players as “guys that really get along with everyone.”

As a tone-setting player, Brown exemplifies that approach to the game, especially by his work ethic.

“In every game and in practice, the same Ira you see in the game is the same guy you see in practice,” Nash observed. “And that’s a rare commodity.”

The same is true for Joho and Mito.

“Joho and Mito,” Nash said, “don’t step off in practice. They go very hard in practice and it carries over to competitive situations.”

One way Nash harnesses that competitive fire is by organizing the team’s 4-on-4-on-4 games during practice, drills that pit three teams of four against one another simultaneously. During these drills, scoring is kept by how many times you hold your foes to no points on a possession.

That keeps the primary focus on defense, Nash said.

Instead of spending lots of time discussing the team’s offensive plays — “We take what we can get. . . . We don’t force anything. . . . I don’t have any rules about where guys are shooting.” — Nash embraces a different approach. “The only thing we discuss is how we are going to be competitive on the defensive end,” he revealed.

That produces an intense desire for success in Toyama.

“When they come to practice every day, it’s game on,” the coach stated. “So I’ve never had to push their button to get them to do things. Everyone knows what we can accomplish. The menu’s set and they just try to execute to the best of their ability every day.

“Team work makes the dream work and that’s why we are working hard as a team,” Nash concluded.

Marshall plan: Yokohama big man Wayne Marshall, who had his season cut short by a knee injury whiling playing for Shinshu in 2012-13, has provided nice contributions for the B-Corsairs frontcourt. In six games, he’s averaged 10.2 points for the reigning champions.

A Temple University product, Marshall is working his way into the rotation as a key big man alongside Marquise Gray (21.0 ppg).

Looking back on Yokohama’s series-ending win over Sendai on Saturday, coach Michael Katsuhisa had this to say about Marshall’s play in an email to The Japan Times: “Wayne Marshall was great as usual when he was out there, with a very efficient 10 points in 17 minutes. He has worked extremely hard rehabbing his knee, and as he gets healthier, he is getting to help this team so much.”

Like a family: Osaka star Kevin Galloway said there’s a simple reason for his club’s six victories in as many games to begin the season under new coach Shunsuke Todo.

“Team chemistry,” were the words Galloway used to describe the key ingredient thus far for the Evessa.

“It’s like a family here and nobody wants to let their brother down,” he told The Japan Times.

Upcoming schedule: Three series — Aomori vs. Gunma, Yokohama vs. Iwate and Fukuoka vs. Nara — start on Friday. The other seven series, starting on Saturday, are as follows: Sendai vs. Oita, Toyama vs. Niigata, Shinshu vs. Tokyo, Saitama vs. Akita, Hamamatsu vs. Takamatsu, Shiga vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Kyoto.

Did you know?: Guard Toure Murry, Niigata guard Nile Murry’s younger brother, is now an NBA rookie for the New York Knicks. The Wichita State product played for the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers last season, averaging 8.3 points in 46 games.

Woeful offense: In its 80-49 loss to Aomori on Sunday, Tokyo made 19 field goals in the 40-minute game. This included a 1-for-18 effort from 3-point range, 19-for-68 overall shooting.

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