Tokyo Apache forward Shoji Nakanishi owned one of the bj-league’s most obscure names as the calendar flipped from 2007 to 2008.
This fact changed quickly last weekend, and his name is now recognized in more places than the Nakanishi household and the homes of his teammates and Tokyo coach Joe Bryant.
The bj-league’s other nine coaches, especially Masato Fukushima of the Toyama Grouses, are now quite familiar with Nakanishi’s name.
The 190-cm Nakanishi forced them to pay attention. He had a breakthrough weekend for the Apache, who entered the two-game home series against the Toyama Grouses riding a four-game losing streak.
The Tottori Prefecture native capitalized on his expanded playing time in a big way. He had entered the game with 14 total points in the Apache’s first 16 games, but eclipsed that total with 16 points in the Jan. 12 win over the Grouses, making 8 of 11 shots from the field.
A day later, Nakanishi again scored in double digits (10 points on 5-for-7 shooting) as the Apache closed out the series with a 96-69 victory.
What’s more, Nakanishi maximized his playing time over the weekend, appearing on the court for 19 productive minutes in both games.
“I’m, of course, satisfied,” Nakanishi said. “Not only in this game, but I would like to gain playing time from now on also.”
He considers the 16-point effort his “top-performance game ever.”
Nakanishi, who turns 26 on April 2, joined the Apache last spring after attending a bj-league tryout. At the time he was employed as a teacher.
“In the tryout I just gave everything I had,” he says now. “And head coach told me I was given credit for my high physical (skills). It’s really a blessing that I was evaluated like that after just a few hours.”
Why did Nakanishi impress Bryant so quickly?
“The first thing that jumped out to me was his athleticism,” the third-year Apache coach says. “He can run and jump with ease, and in my little bit of time here I haven’t seen too many Japanese players with that kind of athleticism.
“And I sat down and talked with him and I asked him, ‘With athleticism like that, you should be playing somewhere; how come you are not playing?’ He said, ‘Well, the coach thought I shoot the ball too much or something.’ He wasn’t having fun.”
“I told him, ‘That’s fine. I would like for you to shoot because that’s something that you do well.’ “
Nakanishi, who attended Nihon University, saw action sparingly down the stretch last season (seven games, 64 total minutes), but began to regain the on-court happiness that comes from regular playing time.
“I think he kind of probably lost the joy for basketball because it becomes such a robotic game,” Bryant says. “Some coaches you get turn you into robots. You don’t give players the freedom to think and the freedom to use their athleticism, so I can imagine him having some problems with other coaches because he’s so athletic.
“And sometimes, coaches don’t know how to coach athletes. They can coach stiffs, but they can’t coach athletes.”
Nakanishi’s transition from the classroom to the pro game has been an unswerving work in progress, but he embraces the challenge.
“Basketball has been a sport I had liked and when the bj-league started and when I saw people familiar to me were playing as professionals I began to want that challenge, too,” Nakanishi says. “Teaching is a fun job, too, and I don’t compare teaching and basketball.”
on Jan. 12, joined the team last spring after catching the eye of Apache coach Joe Bryant at a bj-league
MANABU KOBAYASHI/TOKYO APACHE PHOTO
There is, however, a big difference between Nakanishi the rookie and Nakanishi the second-year pro.
“Well, last year we didn’t know what he could really do. He was just a ball of raw athletic ability,” Apache point guard Darin Satoshi Maki says. “But as I saw him day in and day out, I got to appreciate what he brings to our team.
“He is a great rebounder and defender, a hustle guy that every team needs. He has turned his athletic ability into a nice ballplayer and he is still getting better.”
Maki relays the fact that Nakanishi’s shooting release is a bit awkward, but that hasn’t stopped him from knocking down shots — 3-pointers, mid-range jumpers and short Js in traffic — with regularity.
“He has probably one of the highest shooting percentages everyday in practice,” Maki says. “He’s really impressed me with his shooting touch and his defense has gotten a lot better.”
What’s stayed the same, however, is the inspiration Nakanishi has provided his teammates. They realize how much playing pro ball means to him, and in turn that desire to excel is contagious.
“I think it serves as a reminder to all of us, especially to the kids, that it is OK to follow your dream,” Maki says.
“He can be a teacher whenever he wants to, but he can’t dunk forever. I’m glad he chose basketball because it would be a waste of a great talent, plus I wouldn’t want him to be old and gray telling his grandkids I shoulda, coulda, woulda (played pro ball).”