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Hill, Apache ready for season to tip off


The Tokyo Apache and the Niigata Albirex BB begin the 2010-11 bj-league season a week later than the other 14 teams. And so they’ve both had extra time to make preparations for their first game.

The Apache travel to Tohoku to face the 2-0 Sendai 89ers on Saturday and Sunday.

Bob Hill, the Tokyo Apache’s first-year coach, was hired to mold the team into a championship contender.

The veteran coach, who has guided the NBA’s Knicks, Spurs, Pacers and SuperSonics, believes it’s too early to label his team — which includes ex-NBA center Robert Swift, teen phenom and frontcourt player Jeremy Tyler, NBA Development League veteran forward Kendall Dartez and star guard Cohey Aoki — a title contender. But the fact is, the Apache are considered one of the favorites to earn a Final Four berth this season.

“I know very little about the league in general, so saying we are going to contend for a championship at this point is a bit premature,” Hill told The Japan Times. “We have some talent, but talent can be overrated if it’s not together and not committed to all the proper things in basketball.”

Through Tuesday, the Apache had conducted 40 practices during the preseason, including a weeklong camp in September in suburban Dallas, where Hill gave his players their first taste of the team’s new offensive and defensive strategies. He has commended the players for their hard work and commitment to making improvements.

And now it’s time to shift the focus to actual games.

“That’s a lot of practice to work against each other,” he said. “They are ready to play against another team.”

No coach will state publicly that he’d want his team to have no games in its hometown for the first three months of the season. But the Apache have zero games in Tokyo in October, November or December. (Their Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 home opener is slated for Jan. 6.)

Asked if he’s concerned about the team’s uneven schedule and the possibility of greater fatigue in the 2011 portion of the schedule — the Apache have four games in four days in one stretch and six games in nine days in another, for instance, while teams normally play two games a week — Hill said: “The schedule is what it is. If we can play well and get our share of wins early with all the road games we have to play, it will help (us in) the second half of the season when we play more games here in Tokyo.

“You can never complain about the schedule. The NBA teaches you that.”

The bj-league’s unique two-game series format on consecutive days may seem like an old habit to Hill, though.

“I’m going to treat this format like the playoffs in the NBA,” Hill said.

He added: “We will make certain adjustments from game to game and try to make them work. . . . Can (this) team bring the concentration necessary to adjust from game to game? We will see.”

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Coaches are often asked to analyze big themes — a team’s potential, a retired player’s legacy, the overall trends in the sport — and small topics, too.

Hill will be asked to offer his analysis of the bj-league’s top players and be given chances to make favorable or critical comparisons of these guys with their NBA contemporaries.

He will often be asked to make a few comments about Aoki, one of the league’s most cerebral players and a top clutch shooter who’s now in his sixth season in an Apache uniform.

“Cohey is a very professional player and probably has been our most consistent performer,” said Hill. “I have a lot of respect for him as a person and player.”

With an exhibition win over the Saitama Broncos in the books and a loss in a scrimmage to the Albirex on the road, Hill hasn’t had many opportunities to grade his team against opponents, but he has formed general opinions on the team’s character at this stage of the season. He said depth is the team’s biggest strength.

“The biggest question mark is their ability to carry out and execute a defensive game plan for 40 minutes,” he said.

It will be intriguing to see how Swift, a 216-cm, 127-kg giant who could score 30 points and grab 15 rebounds in every game, and Tyler, who is making preparations to enter the NBA Draft next summer, fit into Hill’s overall plan from game to game, week to week.

For now, he is consistently challenging both of them to play at a high level this season, and by doing so, reminding them of their natural-born talent to play in the world’s best league, the NBA.

“They are both different because Robert has five seasons under his belt and Jeremy is just getting started with his career,” Hill said. “Robert in many respects is a veteran who is trying to get his health back and get back to playing like he is capable. Jeremy is learning everyday how to play professional basketball. He is not unlike all young players in America who desperately need to learn all the little things about basketball at this level.

“Both are very talented players and have the potential to be contributors on NBA teams in the near future. But as we all know talent can be overrated and they both need to continue to work hard toward their goals.”

This has the makings of an incredibly interesting season for the Apache.

Stay tuned.