What a difference a year makes.

News photoNaoto Takushi, left, tries to penetrate into the lane during Thursday’s bj-league tryout in Tokyo. The participants hope to be selected in the upcoming draft on May 21.

The bj-league held the final phase of its tryouts at Tokyo Sports Cultural Center on Thursday, where the league’s coaches were giving a serious look at the 74 participants in hopes of discovering new talent during the three-and-a-half hour sessions.

Overall, the players, that had qualified through the previous phases of the tryouts, clearly were more technically sound and physically stronger than last year’s group.

“In last year’s tryouts, the players weren’t that good,” said Ken Tanaka, who was one of this year’s participants. “But this year, they’ve gotten much faster and stronger.”

The 187-cm Tanaka, who grew up in Los Angeles and has played for the Matsushita Electrics Super Kangaroos, Fukuoka Red Falcons, and most recently, Toyota Alvark in the Japan Basketball League Super League, was one of the players that drew the attention of the coaches in the stands.

As well as being technically and physically better than last year’s group, the players also looked hungrier, as they vied to become professional basketball players. Despite being in a hot and humid arena with the air conditioner switched off, they fought fiercely for the ball and made hard body contacts. All in hopes of showing themselves off to the coaches.

Among the tryout participants were notable former players from the JBL, high school and collegiate basketball powerhouses and some foreign-born athletes as well.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Naoto Takushi, an Okinawa native and former guard for the JBL’s Aisin Sea Horses. “I don’t care where I play, as long as I can play the ballgame and am given a high evaluation.”

The reigning back-to-back champion Osaka Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi wore a casual gray polo shirt as he watched the tryout. A stark contrast from his usual formal suit and tie fashion during games. But his eyes were not necessarily as relaxed as his wardrobe.

Tennichi said he was able to find some well-trained players to fill the hole left by Naoto Nakamura, a guard who joined the Evessa in the middle of last season by capitalizing on the league’s unique “early challenge system.” Nakamura is technically a free agent as the 2006-07 season has ended and is a subject to be picked in the upcoming draft. Meanwhile, Tennichi was not particularly satisfied with the tryout because he could not evaluate many big players. Which is what the Evessa want to acquire.

“We came down here to look for players of position we don’t have,” said Tennichi, who already has powerful foreign players, such as the 2005-06 season MVP Lynn Washington and 2006-07 MVP David Palmer, on his squad.

“We don’t mind how many big guys we have on our team. We’d like to make our size bigger, if not rapidly, but gradually.”

The participants of the final tryout will be subject to be selected in the draft on May 21.

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