First-year coach L.J. Hepp has steered the Oita HeatDevils into a solid position through 10 games.

With five wins and five losses in the books, the HeatDevils have plenty of room for improvement. They also have established themselves as a legitimate playoff contender in the wide-open Western Conference.

Oita has displayed tenacity and toughness and the ability to bounce back, going 4-1 in the second game of their first five series.

Of course, Hepp noted in a recent telephone interview, the HeatDevils need to figure out a way to become a better team in series openers.

“Our usual process has been the coaching staff will watch the game after the game, we’ll make some edits, make a highlight tape and show it the next morning, maybe right after practice,” Hepp said. “I think that’s helped. On the flip side, we have got to figure out how to be more successful on the front end.”

Hepp expressed displeasure with Oita’s poor 3-point shooting — 47-for-181 (26 percent) to date.

“Where we’ve struggled, we have not shot the ball particularly well” from 3-point range, Hepp stated. “. . . As a coaching staff, we are not upset with the shots we are taking, but just maybe the guys have just gotten together for the first time and are figuring each other out. We expect and anticipate these shots to be falling for us real soon.”

Asked if it appears on film that his players are taking their long-range shots too quickly, Hepp said he didn’t think that was the case. But he did say the team’s shot selection can improve.

“I don’t think they are rushing their shots,” Hepp said.

“At times, we do pass up good shots early in the possession, and maybe (later on) not get as good a shot as earlier,” he added.

“I tell them we have to take the first good shot that’s available.”

Conversely, Hepp has been pleased with the team’s commitment to playing high-energy defense.

The HeatDevils are allowing 73.5 ppg, the lowest total among the Western Conference’s nine teams. In addition, opposing teams have shot 34.8 percent from the floor against Oita in its five wins.

“Clearly something that we hang our hat on is how we defend,” he said. ‘That’s something we’ve talked about since Sept. 1,” he insisted, underscoring the team’s foundation is built on defense.

Forward Damian Johnson, averaging a team-high 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, is the team’s most All-Star-worthy player, according to Hepp. But the coach revealed he’s been frustrated that Johnson has been plagued by foul trouble (four games with four or more fouls, including one disqualification).

“If we could find a way to keep him out of foul trouble, his numbers would be even more — greater than 15 and eight or nine,” the coach said. “I think if we could keep him on the court a bit longer, he would have some more eye-opening numbers. He’s a guy we’ve been very pleased with, a kind of do-it-all guy offensively and our best defender.”

Stranger than fiction: The Tokyo Apache, with zero home games in Tokyo in October, November and December, booked Yoyogi Gymnasium No. 2 for a youth clinic on Nov. 22. Fans must wait another month and a half, however, to see the Apache play an actual game at their home court.

At the crossroads: With a league-worst 2-8 record entering this weekend, the Saitama Broncos face an uphill battle to qualify for the bj-league playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Coach Bob Nash, in his first season at the helm, recognizes this challenge, but is keeping a positive attitude as he tries to inspire the team to a dramatic turnaround.

“I think our guys have worked awful hard,” Nash said by telephone on Tuesday. “The results may not have showed that, but they have worked awful hard.”

This is Nash’s first coaching job in the professional ranks after two-plus decades at the University of Hawaii, where he served as a longtime assistant coach and for the previous three seasons as the bench boss.

“We are learning,” the ex-NBA player said. “This is obviously new for me with this level of play and being in a foreign country. I’m trying to learn the players and learn the system.

“It’s been a little bit slower than I have anticipated. But the players have been very open and receptive to teaching and learning and that has been a real positive. They are working really hard and that’s a positive. . .”

With the addition of ex-Indiana center George Leach, a standout with the Takamatsu Five Arrows and Ryukyu Golden Kings in recent seasons, the Broncos have solidified their frontcourt. The All-Star veteran is slated to make his season debut this weekend against Toyama.

Nash said Bruce Brown and Gordon Klaiber, Saitama’s center and power forward, have not been as effective as the team had hoped from the get-go.

Their adjustment to this league has been a work in progress, he added.

“As a result, our post play has been inconsistent on offense and defense. That has been the biggest negative for us,” Nash said.

Now it’s back to square one with Leach expecting to make a major impact in the middle.

“There are brighter days ahead,” Nash said. “We rededicated ourselves yesterday to getting this thing turned around.”

What was his message to the team?

“We can’t afford to take any more time off,” Nash said. “We’ve got to get better in a hurry and just get back to work.

“I told the players that there’s no elevator or escalator to success. It’s just one step, one game, and our guys understand that.”

He added: “We are losing by an average of 12 points per game, or three points per quarter. We need to be a little better on defense and a little better on offense.

“We’ve had 10 games to analyze where we are, who we are and what were are capable of doing, and now it’s time to sharpen the focus on what were are capable of doing individually and collectively.”

Bobby Nash, the coach’s son, is the Broncos’ leading scorer (13.0 ppg) and Kenny Satterfield, an ex-NBA point guard, is No. 2 (12.7 ppg) and leads the league in assists (7.5).

Kazuya “J.” Hatano has been an effective small forward (11.0 ppg) with rugged defense and relentless pursuit of rebounds.

Weekly accolade: Masashi Joho, who had 21- and 18-point performances last weekend against Osaka, is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week, the league announced on Tuesday.

Joho helped the Lakestars earn a weekend sweep and move into a tie for first with the Evessa. He has scored 15 or more points in all but one game this season and is 45-for-90 from 2-point range.

Lost in the shuffle?: Tokyo guard Cohey Aoki, one of the league’s most electrifying performers since its inception in 2005, has had a relatively quiet season to date (7.2 ppg). In fact, he only played 27 combined minutes against Saitama on Nov. 7-8 and scored a total of five points in the series.

A magnificent free-throw shooter throughout his career, Aoki has only attempted two foul shots this season.

The fact that Aoki isn’t playing major minutes every game this season doesn’t surprise everyone around the league, though.

“With Byron Eaton, Kendall Dartez and Robert Swift being such a focus of the offense, and handling the ball so much, a player who can knock down spot-up 3-point shots like Jumpei Nakama has done (20-for-41 from 3-point range) becomes very valuable,” one bj-league coach told The Japan Times. “Cohey isn’t really a spot-up shooter, he’s better with the ball and shooting off the dribble, which he now has less opportunities to do.

“His minutes were way down in the two Saitama games. It may be hard to get those minutes back. American coaches are often looking for bigger guards, so you can see Jumpei playing more in Tokyo, (Daiki) Terashita playing more in Saitama.”

What’s more, Aoki’s defensive reputation doesn’t match his scoring prowess, according to the coach.

“Doesn’t help that Cohey has almost always treated defense as an afterthought, just doing enough to get by,” the coach said. “With Tokyo struggling early, coach Hill probably wants players who put out more effort on the defensive end.

“I remember Japanese players on our team last season making fun of his hands down, disinterested defensive stance.”

Top players: Several of the league’s coaches were asked who they think has been the league’s best all-around player in the season’s first month (but the request was made for them to select someone on the league’s other 15 teams, so they avoid the temptation of choosing their own player) and to explain why they think he’s been No. 1.

Here are their responses:

• Ryukyu’s Dai Oketani: “Without (discussing) our players, I think Wendell White is better than other players. He is like LeBron James. He can defender 1-4 positions (point guards to power forwards). Not only he can shoot from outside, but he also can post-up small players.”

• Kyoto’s Kazuto Aono: “(Mikey Marshall, No. 0). Great number, known game, plays defense hard. When Shiga beat Osaka (two-game sweep last weekend), he shut (Billy) Knight out.”

• Osaka’s Ryan Blackwell: “Mikey Marshall. He does a little bit of everything. He’s a point forward. Handles the ball, good shooter, passer, rebounder, can block shots, finish with both hands and is very active. Has has good shooting percentages as well.”

• Oita’s L.J. Hepp: “Speaking for our whole team, every game it’s been, everybody is talking about Michael Parker’s numbers. It’s not only the amount of his production but his efficiency. . . . At one point he was shooting an unbelievable percentage from the field, but not just his volume — his scoring over 30 per game is impressive — and the efficiency of the shots, the number of shots it’s taking him to do that and the percentage of the shots that are going in (is astonishing).”

Note: Through Sunday, Parker is scoring a league-high 31.2 points per game to go along with 11.0 rebounds. He’s shooting 70.8 percent from inside the 3-point arc (119-for-168).

• Saitama’s Bob Nash: “If you look at Michael Parker and what he’s doing on a nightly basis — double-doubles — I would think he would have to be the best player in the first month. To get 53 points (a league-record, single-game total on Nov. 7 against Takamatsu) and work that hard for his team (is impressive).”

Nash also cited Lynn Washington’s consistent, excellent play for Osaka, too, saying he’s also worthy for consideration.

• Akita’s Bob Pierce: “Michael Parker certainly has played well, and maybe he’s been the best, but with two wins over Osaka (and Lynn Washington, who probably would deserve the honors if the Evessa had won both), I think Mikey Marshall has been the best player. He’s scoring, rebounding, getting assists and playing defense. I thought Fukuoka would be 7-3 or 8-2 now, so I think their 6-4 record is a bit underachieving. Hamamatsu at 9-1 has the best record, so Wayne Arnold deserves consideration as well. But Hamamatsu often overwhelms opponents because they have so many good players that it’s hard to single out one player for honors.”

Pierce also offered his perspective on who’s been the league’s top Japanese player this season: Shiga’s Masashi Joho (17.8 ppg, No. 8 in the league).

“Joho has been the best Japanese player by far, although (Shimane’s Takumi) Ishizaki has been really good as well,” Pierce said. “I think Joho is still upset that Cohey (Aoki) was selected to the Best Five Team last season and not him, and that Yu Okada got more consideration for that spot as well.

“He’s playing with a vengeance this season. He has some of that Kobe (Bryant)/Michael (Jordan) mind-set that he has to prove he’s the best. I can’t wait to see him play against Ishizaki.”

Looking ahead: The Fukuoka-Shimane series got under way on Thursday and Kyoto plays host to Hamamatsu on Friday.

Five other matchups are slated to begin on Saturday: Akita vs. Tokyo, Sendai vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. Saitama, Osaka vs. Ryukyu and Takamatsu vs. Miyazaki.

Oita plays host to Shiga on Monday and Tuesday.

Welcome back: After releasing big man Mike Muller last week, the Lakestars signed Ray Schafer, a 213-cm center, to a contract and announced the signing earlier this week.

Schafer has played for Shiga in each of the previous two seasons.

Also this week, Akita signed 207-cm forward Dokun Akingbade, who played for the Niigata Albirex BB in the 2008-09 season. Akingbade, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States as a baby, played for Jamtland in the Swedish League last season, averaging a team-best 16.9 points and 8.9 rebounds in 36 games. His Jamtland teammate Issa Konare (15.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg in 2009-10) now plays for the Albirex.

The 207-cm Akingbade played college ball at George Washington University.

Closing commentary: The bj-league held its first All-Star Game in January 2007 in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. It was a festive atmosphere and a well-organized, entertaining event. I had an enjoyable time being there for the league’s first mid-season showcase, as did a few thousand fans.

There were eight teams in the league that season. Now, there are 16 teams.

For the first All-Star Game, 20 players were selected to participate. This season’s All-Star Game, which will be held in January in Osaka, will also feature 20 players — 10 from the Eastern Conference and 10 from the Western Conference.

It doesn’t make sense to not add a few more players per squad — 15 would be a nice round number — for the All-Star Game now that the number of teams has doubled. A lot of good players will miss the opportunity to appear in the All-Star Game.

Fans deserve a chance to see a greater percentage of the league’s players appear in the All-Star Game.

It’s disgraceful — foolish, really — that the league hasn’t embraced this position.

And it’s another example of the league failing to see the big picture.

Again: To cultivate a growing fan base, you need to use common sense to improve the product.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an e-mail to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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