The Akita Northern Happinets (18-4) have presided atop the Eastern Conference standings for the entire season. The Toyama Grouses have catapulted to championship-caliber status with 16 victories in their first 20 games.
And, not to be overlooked, the Shinshu Brave Warriors (13-5 overall, 7-1 at home) have achieved prominence in their third season, but first under bench boss Ryuji Kawai, winning nine of their last 10 games. The Nagano Prefecture-based team was a combined 35-69 in its first two seasons.
The Brave Warriors have the fourth-best winning percentage (72.2) in the league through Sunday, with the Ryukyu Golden Kings (16-2) holding the top spot at 88.9. Riding a five-game winning streak, Shinshu has demonstrated that it’s early season success is no fluke. (The Niigata Albirex BB, who are 15-7 overall and 11-1 at home, and the 11-7 Iwate Big Bulls are also injecting hard-nosed competition for the East’s top playoff seeds.)
“Our recent success to date has been due to the way we’re jelling as a collective unit,” Shinshu forward Jeff Parmer told The Japan Times in a Tuesday interview.
A major key to the Brave Warriors’ success is the fact they make good decisions with the basketball (298 assists, 224 turnovers), which reflects on the commendable job Kawai has done as coach while transforming the team culture.
Guard Yosuke Saito has played for the Warriors since the team’s inception, and his 61 assists and 25 turnovers illustrate that effective decision-making trait. And five of Saito’s teammates have between 25 and 42 assists, highlighting their shared commitment to unselfish play.
The team, featuring a new nucleus, is led by University of California-Irvine product Patrick Sanders’ 17.7 points per game, followed by ex-Florida State player Xavier Gibson’s 14.2 ppg, Shota Konno’s 13.6 and Jeff Parmer’s 12.7. Center Emanuel Willis, a Houston Baptist alum, is scoring 9.6 ppg, while Shoji Nakanishi’s providing 7.6. All six men were on different teams last season.
“Chemistry is a huge key to any team’s success,” Parmer said. “I believe we’re slowly but surely gaining that chemistry we need to win games. You mix in good chemistry, good coaching by Ryuji, a great fan base, which we always have here in Shinshu, and the sky is the limit for the team and I.”
Furthermore, that scoring balance has not gone unnoticed.
“We share the ball very well within our team,” Parmer said.
“You can’t just key in on one or two guys and think that’s going to be good enough to get a win against us,” he added. “On any given night we have at least five or six guys that can have a big night for us. That’s very hard to key in on.”
Exhibit A: Konno, who played for the Osaka Evessa from 2007-13, is having, by far, the best offensive season of his pro career. He scored 8.9 ppg, his previous-high average, last season.
Parmer was an integral part of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s success over the past three seasons, taking home MVP honors for the 2010-11 season and leading the Phoenix to their second straight championship, when Kawai was sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura’s assistant at that time. Over the next two campaigns, Parmer’s reputation as a team leader and league star increased.
Looking at Shinshu’s performance to date, Parmer considers team rebounding (“We have guys that go get the ball off the rim and we’re very feisty and aggressive for rebounds”) and limiting turnovers as two strengths. He said improving 3-point shooting and closing out games are areas the team needs to focus on improving, “if we want to be in the conversation with the elite teams at the end of the season.”
“We don’t lack confidence at all,” he said of taking 3-point shots. “It’s just a matter of making them when it counts. . . . Not being able to close out games like we need to has cost us a game or two in the winning column. (But) as our chemistry continues to grow, us being able to close out games will come.”
Indeed, the cerebral forward’s move to the Brave Warriors helped change the dynamics of the team.
“We’re definitely learning from our mistakes, and as a player and a captain of this team, that’s all I can ask for,” Parmer said. “My assessment of our third-place standing in the East is that we’re right where we want and need to be. Even though we’ve played four less games than Akita and two less games than Toyama, they each have four losses while we have five losses.
“We’re just going to continue to do what we’ve been doing on this five-game winning streak and that’s playing hard, smart and together as a team.”
Parmer and Nakanishi, his Hamamatsu teammate before both joined the Warriors, expect an emotional return to take on the Phoenix this weekend, one that Parmer’s had on his calendar for quite some time.
“Of course this will not only be a huge weekend for my team but for Coach Ryuji, Shoji and I,” Parmer admitted. “It will be a wonderful experience to go back there and compete against some of my old teammates such as Jermaine Dixon, Ray Nixon, Atsuya Ota, Masahiro Oguchi and Shinnosuke Oishi. Most of all, it will be a great feeling to play in front of the Phoenix boosters who supported me my three seasons there through all the ups and downs.”
League honor: Gibson was named the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP with a pair of 21-point games last weekend against the Gunma Crane Thunders. In the series opener, he also had 15 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. He grabbed eight rebounds in the rematch.
Blackwell’s replacement: The Crane Thunders have handed the coaching reins to 27-year-old Hiroki Fujita, who began the season as Ryan Blackwell’s assistant.
Blackwell coached his final game on Saturday, a 93-78 defeat to Shinshu and was replaced on the bench by Fujita on Sunday — Gunma lost that game, too, 91-83.
Gunma (3-17) officially announced Blackwell’s ouster on Monday.
The Crane Thunders went 14-38 as an expansion team in 2012-13.
Now, the rebuilding continues under the third coach in franchise history. (Tadashi Hayashi was axed after an 0-8 start last season.)
“I’m still shocked that Ryan isn’t there,” a longtime league observer told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He quickly stabilized things when he got there last season. I wonder what went wrong this year.
“Was it the budget? Interference from management? Import players that didn’t live up to their supposed worth? Bad team chemistry? Inability to sign new Japanese players that would improve the team? Lots of things can go wrong, and often coaches have little control over many of them,” the source added.
It remains to be seen if Fujita, a former Hamamatsu and Miyazaki Shining Suns player, will steer the club in the right direction.
“Fujita has always seemed like a very nice, hard-working guy,” the source said. “But if the problems are related to an impatient, interfering management, who the coach is won’t make much difference.”
Upcoming schedule: The weekend matchups are as follows: Aomori vs. Ryukyu, Iwate vs. Fukuoka, Niigata vs. Oita, Saitama vs. Takamatsu, Yokohama vs. Shimane, Hamamatsu vs. Shinshu, Shiga vs. Toyama, Kyoto vs. Tokyo, Osaka vs. Akita and Nara vs. Sendai.
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