Ryan Blackwell has successfully guided the Osaka Evessa during his first month as the team’s new head coach.

The question now is this: Can Osaka maintain its super start for the remainder of the season?

For starters, the Evessa (5-1), last season’s championship runnerup, play eight games against Western Conference foes this month, and it’ll give Blackwell’s club a chance to separate itself from the pack. (The Evessa currently hold a one-game lead over the Shiga Lakestars and the Rizing Fukuoka, among others — in the nine-team conference.)

“The next few weeks are going to be a great challenge,” Blackwell told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “The competition is going to get tougher. I just want us to really continue to get better on the defensive end and focusing more on the little things, like getting loose balls, boxing out and getting in the passing lanes on defense.

“It’s those little things that separate teams and win games. They have to challenge themselves to be focused and do it on a weekly basis.”

With power forward Lynn Washington and cerebral frontcourt mate Billy Knight, who played for champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix last season, giving the Evessa two quasi-coaches on the floor, this proud franchise is known for playing fundamentally sound basketball.

Which is why Blackwell says his transition from Evessa player (he retired after last season) to Evessa coach has gone relatively smoothly.

“I think having good leaders and proven winners like Lynn and Billy has made it easier,” Blackwell said. “They are great players, hard workers and very determined. And I think overall these guys have accepted me as their leader as well.

“I make sure that we are always on the same page. I stress communication and make sure everybody’s opinions are heard. As a collective group, we have a great deal of trust in each other and I stress daily that they have the same level of trust and confidence in themselves.

“We have been winning with defense and maintaining our composure when things aren’t going well. I stressed from day one that we have enough talent to score, but I challenge them to be better and better on defense.”

While Washington and Knight are the team’s most well-known players, newcomer Masashi Obuchi, a flashy guard who suited up for Ryuku last season, has quietly made a solid impact over the season’s first three weeks. He’s averaging 8.2 points per game and has knocked down 45 percent of his 3-point shots (9-for-20).

Blackwell believes Obuchi is a special player, one who’ll gain greater recognition as the season progresses.

“He’s as good as any Japanese player I have seen,” said Blackwell. “Sometimes he may not score as much as others, but he is very smart and steady and does all the little things. As a coach and former player, I can appreciate that.”

Coach’s perspective: Miyazaki bench boss Koto Toyama, whose first-year club is 2-4 entering the season’s second month, has seen enough game film to know that his team is a work in progress.

“We need to work on boxing out as a team and get rebounds and loose balls,” he said. “We need to execute our team defense — we do have a few rules for the team defense — for 40 minutes each game.

“On the offensive end, we need to make smart and quick decisions on the floor.”

On the bright side, the Shining Suns have been pesky and competitive, with three single-digit losses and two wins by four points or less. Only once have they been blown out — 83-63 to Osaka on Oct. 17.

Forward Jackie Manuel, a tri-captain on North Carolina’s 2005 NCAA championship squad, has emerged as a leader and the top scorer (19.3 ppg).

“He’s very athletic and has a nice shooting touch,” Toyama said of Manuel. “He’s also very unselfish and has a team-first mentality. The best thing about him is his work ethic. He plays so hard on the defensive end from start to finish. His contribution to the team defensively is so big right now.”

Toyama also singled out captain Taishiro Shimizu for his early season impact, which includes 9.8 ppg.

“He is very smart on the floor and has a high enough basketball IQ to execute the demands I give on the floor,” the coach said. “He is one of the key players for our team, so I expect him to perform well consistently throughout the season.”

By the numbers: Through Sunday, the Phoenix and Evessa are both 4-0 at home, while the Broncos are 0-4 on the road. . . . The HeatDevils are averaging a league-low 67.0 points; the Lakestars are No. 1 in scoring (93.7 ppg). . . .

Saitama point guard Kenny Satterfield leads the league in assists (7.7 per game, or 46). The second-leading passer is Shiga power forward Gary Hamilton, always a threat to record a triple-double, with 6.3 per game (38 total against 16 turnovers). Hamilton is the league’s top rebounder (14.7 boards per game). . . .

Lakestars shooting guard Masashi Joho is the lone Japanese in the top 10 in scoring. He sits No. 10 with 19.5 ppg and has 15 or more points in each of Shiga’s six games. Joho is 13-for-40 from outside the 3-point arc and 32-for-60 from 2-point range.

Veteran spark: Rasheed Sparks, beginning his second stint with the Five Arrows, has been a steady contributor in all facets of the game.

Sparks, who led the league in assists and steals during the 2006-07 season when Takamatsu was the championship runnerup as an expansion team, is the team’s leading scorer through Sunday (13.8 ppg). He leads the team in 3-pointer made (nine), rebounds (31), assists (13) and steals (eight).

Sparks, a Morgan State product, turned 33 on Oct. 16, the season’s opening day.

October MVP: Evessa forward Billy Knight, one of the league’s top newcomers last season while playing for the Phoenix, is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Month, the league announced.

Knight averaged 21.5 ppg in October, helping Osaka win five of six contests. He was 36-for-39 at the free-throw line and 13-for-26 from 3-point range while making just below 50 percent on 2-point shots (27-for-55). He also averaged 7.2 rebounds per game in the month.

Looking ahead: This weekend features a full slate of games, as all 16 teams are in action. Here are the matchups: Akita vs. Toyama, Saitama vs. Tokyo, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa vs. Niigata, Osaka vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Sendai, Shimane vs. Miyazaki, Takamatsu vs. Fukuoka and Ryukyu vs. Oita.

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