There are a number of new faces on this season’s Tokyo Apache squad — players, coaches, front office personnel and even a new owner.
The four-game, four-day homestand that wrapped up Sunday, though, was a telling reminder that some things remain the same.
Guard Cohey Aoki, whom you could simply call Old Reliable, was the team’s most consistent offensive performer against the Oita HeatDevils and Shimane Susanoo Magic.
Think of it this way: The team’s smallest player (167 cm) made as big an impact as anyone in helping the Apache post a 2-2 record at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching some awfully great shooters, (future Hall of Famer) Ray Allen and (all-time great) Reggie Miller are two of them,” said Tokyo’s new coach, Bob Hill, reflecting on his days in the NBA during a Sunday news conference. “I don’t know if they could play four games in a row and shoot as well as Cohey did. Obviously it’s the NBA and it’s the bj-league, but that’s where they play, and Cohey goes 6-for-9 (from the field) today.
“His percentage is just incredible every day, and he plays very, very good team defense, so he, too, has to be given credit.”
Here’s a recap of Aoki’s play in those four games:
• He scored 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting on Thursday in Tokyo’s long-awaited home opener against Oita, a victory for the Apache. He also made two steals.
• He had 19 points, including 5-for-5 on 3-point shots (7-for-9 overall), in the rematch.
• He put 16 points on the board and made 6 of 12 shots on Saturday against Shimane.
• He finished with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting against the Susanoo Magic in the series finale and had a steal to finish the week with five takeaways.
Aoki, who will play in his fifth All-Star Game on Jan. 23, is averaging 10.6 points per game, no easy task when you consider the depth and talent on this Tokyo team, featuring ex-NBA center Robert Swift, rising star Jeremy Tyler, former NBA Development League players Byron Eaton and Kendall Dartez and much-improved sharpshooter Jumpei Nakama, among others.
Humor can help reveal astounding facts in new, refreshing ways. For instance, every coach who has collected a paycheck in the bj-league has remarked about Aoki’s terrific free-throw shooting since the upstart circuit’s inception. (He entered the season with an 89.9 career shooting percentage at the charity stripe.)
Hill knows this is true, too, and doesn’t need to call up Jerry Seinfeld to ask him to concoct a few silly lines about Aoki’s shooting.
“He hit one (big) 3-pointer, but he missed a free, though, so maybe I should make him run suicides,” the coach joked on Sunday.
The 30-year-old Fukuoka native considers this season a blessing for him on a personal level.
“It’s a great opportunity to play under a coach with NBA experience,” Aoki was quoted as saying on a poster bearing his photo that was given to fans during the homestand. “Every day is a learning opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. I would like to continue to absorb as much knowledge as I can.”
How valuable was Aoki’s consistent play during the four games?
Listen to big man Tyler’s assessment of the situation:
“Cohey brings a lot of intensity. (For example), when we are down by a lot, and Cohey does something, he is going to do it back-to-back, he’s going to do it maybe three times in a row.”
This includes pull-up 3-pointers, catch-and-shoot jumpers, backdoor layups, runners, off-balance reverse layups, and a tantalizing assortment of moves for the Senshu University product.
“That kind of wakes their team up and wakes us up, too, like mentally, and he brings a lot of energy to us,” Tyler added. “He doesn’t really talk too much but he lets his game speak for everything that he does.
“We respect him a lot.”
Aoki has developed a loyal following around this league. His name is synonymous with the circuit as much as any player. This season, he’s been featured in a Spalding promotional campaign with Osaka Evessa star Lynn Washington, a two-time MVP and three-time title winner.
In short, Aoki commands respect. He is a smart player who understands his strengths and maximizes those skills to produce tangible results for his team.
Working under Hill, Aoki has not tried to force the issue, not tried to over-impress the veteran coach, in terms of offensive play.
Sure, he has a knack for the razzle-dazzle pass from time to time, but he tends to stay within his game and will find his spots to slip in the high lob for high-flying Tyler, Swift or Dartez to jam home, or the no-look dish on the fast break to an open teammate.
The fact that Aoki hasn’t had more than two turnovers in any game this season is a testament to his professionalism.
“He’s just a terrific person, a great teammate and a whale of a basketball player, he just really is,” Hill concluded in a Friday interview. “He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s funny. Everybody loves him. Watching last night’s tape, he probably played the best game on our team defensively in terms of knowing the game plan and being in position all the time.
“He’s a very good basketball player. It’s just so unfortunate he’s so small. It’s tough for him, but he does as good a job as you can do for a guy 5-(foot)-5 in the game of basketball.”