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Kabaya starts strong as B-Corsairs evolve


Staff Writer

With four games in the books, the expansion Yokohama B-Corsairs now have several relevant things that can be discussed in team meetings. A few trends have started to emerge, too, including the solid play of guards Masayuki Kabaya and Kenji Yamada.

Kabaya, the team captain, is averaging 10.5 points per game for the B-Corsairs, who fell to 2-2 after a 90-76 loss to the host Saitama Broncos on Sunday. Yamada’s scoring average is 11.0.

USC product Marcus Simmons leads the team with 16.0 ppg and former St. John’s forward Justin Burrell is second at 15.8.

In addition to his symbolic role as a leader, Kabaya has posted solid numbers to supplement his scoring production, including eight assists, five rebounds and three steals in the series finale against the Broncos.

“We’ve been very happy with Kabaya’s play,” Yokohama coach Reggie Geary told reporters. “Initially, I think, in the first game, he had some nerves at first in the Hamamatsu game, but ever since then he’s been more relaxed and in control of the responsibilities that we are putting on him.

“Both Kenji (Yamada) and Kabaya are playing outstanding right now, and we hope that continues.”

Growing pains: On Sunday, Burrell picked up two technical fouls in the fourth quarter, one for slapping the bench as his emotions got the better of him.

“That was unnecessary,” Geary said of Burrell’s actions, “and it will result in a technical. It was the correct call.”

The B-Corsairs’ overall growth as a team is progressing and its maturation will take time.

“We just came together a few weeks ago,” Burrell said. “A lot of teams have been together for a little while, so we’re all still learning what each player is good at, what each player is comfortable with their role being. . . . We’re still learning our sets. We’re trying to get better with them.”

After four games as a pro, Burrell had time to reflect on his college experiences and what he’s faced so far in the bj-league.

“Last year, I played in the Big East, which they nicknamed the Junior NBA, because it was so physical, so athletic and there were so many (future) pros throughout the league,” he said. “But over here it’s a high level of basketball as well. It’s just a little different style, a little less physical, but for the most part guys are really good, a lot of shooters. Guys are able to get into the lane and make plays.”

Tyler talk: Former Tokyo Apache forward Jeremy Tyler, who played for the team last season before being chosen in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft, is waiting for the lockout to end. Like all draft picks, Tyler, who was traded from Charlotte to Golden State on draft day, is without a contract for the upcoming season, and until the NBA lockout ends, he cannot play for the team’s NBA Development League affiliate, the Dakota Wizards, either.

So Tyler has a lot of time on his hands for pickup games and watching movies — a typical summer vacation, you might call it.

Tyler’s California-based agent, Jason Ranne of the Wasserman Media Group, said the bj-league could be a possibility as the 20-year-old wants to play and remain in top physical condition. And with the Apache season ending almost two months early after the Great East Japan Earthquake, it’s understandable that finding regular competition is a top priority for Tyler.

“Jeremy has a tremendous love for Japan and enjoyed his time there,” Ranne said. “He, of course, would consider returning to play there if the situation was right and will evaluate all of his options.”

Tokyo Apache update: The team suspended operations for the 2011-12 season due to financial problems and it is still unknown if the team will return to the league for the following season. Team president Chris Hetherington, reached via email in California, provided a brief update on the team’s status.

“It isn’t fair to speculate on the 2012-2013 season as it will depend on many factors,” Hetherington wrote. “As for the sale of the team, there continues to be some discussions but nothing concrete.”

There are other deals in the works for people associated with last season’s Apache squad. Center Robert Swift is waiting for a chance to compete for a job with the Celtics, former Tokyo coach Bob Hill said, adding that guard Byron Eaton will play in the D-League this season and guard Justin Johnson, who saw limited action in the spring, is looking to play overseas this season.

This autumn, Hill will work for the Chinese Basketball Association’s Guangdong Tigers, helping them prepare for the upcoming season. Tigers coach Li Chunjiang is Hill’s good friend.

In related news, Hill’s son, Casey, an assistant for the Apache last season, will work for Dakota in the same capacity this season. The Wizards season tips off on Nov. 25.

New edition: Former UCLA guard Natalie Nakase, who worked for the Apache last season as an assistant coach, has joined the Broncos to fill the same role.

“We are fortunate to have Natalie on our staff with the Broncos,” Saitama coach Dean Murray told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “Having been an assistant coach last year with the Tokyo Apache she brings experience and knowledge about the bj-league and the teams. This will be useful for our team when scouting future opponents during the season. She also will work directly with the guards in practice and be involved in all day-to-day basketball duties with our team.”

Nakase, a California native, was a pro player and coach in Germany.

Notable debut: Former West Virginia forward John Flowers, now suiting up for the Saitama Broncos, had 25 points on 10-for-25 shooting, eight rebounds, and five blocked shots on Sunday. A day earlier, he had 22 points on 8-for-21 shooting, seven rebounds, three steals and one block before fouling out in 32-plus minutes.

In this reporter’s conversations with a number of bj-league personnel, this has become the consensus opinion: Flowers is one of the league’s elite talents.

“First and foremost, his shot-blocking ability is (excellent),” Geary said. “He’s the best I’ve seen in this league and some other leagues. He’s an exceptional shot-blocker, which is a valuable weapon to have.”

Noting that Flowers’ offensive skill set is not something to laugh at, Geary said, “He’s just a very good ball player at both ends of the floor.”

On facing Flowers again at the pro level, Burrell offered this assessment of his former Big East Conference foe: “Flowers is a tremendous player. That’s why he’s fortunate to be here in Japan playing. It’ll always be a challenge (to compete against him). Throughout college and now as a pro, he was always a focal point of each scouting report and things like that.”

Saitama center Gabriel Hughes described Flowers as a “solid player.”

“I’m blessed and I’m very lucky to have a 4-man (power forward) who works as hard. … It makes my job easier,” Hughes added.

For Flowers, playing the first back-to-back games of his pro career in less than 24 hours, fatigue did set in on Sunday.

“I feel beat up a little bit,” he said. “My feet hurt — blisters. But we’ve got a day off, so I can rest up a little bit, and get my feet done, hopefully get a pedicure or get my calluses shaven. I’ll ice my feet and I should be fine.”

With a 14-point victory on Sunday after his team’s 10-point season-opening loss, Flowers said aggressive play and confidence sparked the team in the rematch against the B-Corsairs.

As for his own play, including the aforementioned game-high five blocks, Flowers said, “I think my defense was solid today. I think it was a lot better than yesterday. … But my offense was terrible, awful. I’m shooting too many shots and not producing.”

In the two games, Flowers was 3-for-15 on 3-point shots, which he called “unacceptable.”

“I just need to have confidence in myself and know that I can make a shot, a wide-open shot, instead of second-guessing myself,” he said.

On the defensive end, Flowers’ confidence remains as strong as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ famed Steel Curtain in the 1970s.

“That’s my niche: I play defense and block shots,” Flowers said, adding that he wants to be in the hunt for the league’s blocked shots title. “That’s definitely one of my goals, so I’m going to do that.”

Making his mark: Guard Narito Namizato scored 24 and 19 points on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, for the Ryukyu Golden Kings in his first two games in the league, helping the Western Conference juggernaut defeat the Rizing Fukuoka twice.

Namizato, 22, is gaining the attention of avid hoop followers outside of Okinawa.

“He’s certainly off to a good start,” one Eastern Conference coach said Monday, without needing to point out that Namizato also had 14 assists last weekend. “It will be interesting to see how he does now that teams can scout and prepare.”

Golden Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson, who has been with the team since 2008, recognizes that Namizato is a talented player, but said it’s too early for him to draw comparisons to other standout Japanese who’ve been impact players for several seasons.

“I think Namizato has as much talent that I have seen at his age in quite some time,” Richardson said. “As far as comparing him to guys like Cohey (Aoki), (Masashi) Joho, Yu Okada, Takumi Ishizaki, Satoshi Takeda and Kimitake Sato, let’s wait and see, he could be at the same level or even better. He has much talent and skill but is still a student of the game.”

What makes Namizato, who spent most of the past two seasons on JBL club Link Tochigi Brex’s bench, a vital part of the Golden Kings?

“Well, he is good at creating for others first, but he is so fast and strong for his size that he can create so much for himself,” Richardson said. “Most of the time the defense has to decide if they want to defend him on the drive or the pull-up (jumper), and with his shot falling like it is that is a hard decision.

“He runs the pick-and-roll so well with Jeff (Newton) and Reggie (Okosa) and that creates so much for them and others.

“There are still a lot of games left to play but I believe you will see him get even better as he grows within the Kings system and the game.”

The Okinawan participated in the 2007 Adidas Basketball Experience camp in New Orleans. He was one of 64 players invited to the camp, and at that time he was the shortest at 178 cm, according to a FIBA.com article.

At the time, Namizato, who wants to play in the NBA like his role model Yuta Tabuse, revealed he values hard work as a necessary tool for elevating one’s game. “You have to love to play basketball and be committed,” he was quoted as saying.

“You need to be on the court before and after everybody else, study the game on and off the court,” he added. “If you’re just another guy going out there, your chances of making it aren’t very high. You have to work hard for it.”

Ryukyu travels to play archrival Osaka Evessa this weekend in the first blockbuster series of the young season. The other Saturday-Sunday matchups are Chiba Jets vs. Yokohama B-Corsairs, Akita Northern Happinets vs. Iwate Big Bulls, Shinshu Brave Warriors vs. Saitama Broncos, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix vs. Sendai 89ers, Shiga Lakestars vs. Oita HeatDevils, Kyoto Hannaryz vs. Toyama Grouses, Miyazaki Shining Suns vs. Rizing Fukuoka and Takamatsu Five Arrows vs. Shimane Susanoo Magic.

Back in Japan: Hughes, the Saitama big man, returned to Japan after playing in various pro leagues in Europe and the Middle over the past five seasons. He was part of the Oita HeatDevils team in 2005-06, the fledgling circuit’s inaugural campaign.

Indeed, Hughes, a former University of California player, has seen a number of changes in the league, especially the league’s size as it grew from six teams during his time with Oita to 19, minus the Apache.

“My first year in Oita, the Japanese culture really embraced basketball,” Hughes said after an eight-point, 10-rebound performance on Sunday. “Our fan base was amazing so I knew that it would grow from six teams. I didn’t know how fast it would grow. … Here in Japan, the fan base is awesome, so there’s no way you can contain it here; six teams wasn’t enough. It grew fast, it grew real fast.”

He added: “The Japanese players have just increased their skill level year to year that six teams wouldn’t be enough.”

Is the bj-league more competitive now?

“It’s definitely more competitive,” he said.

“Now with guys like (Saitama’s) Yuki (Kitamuki) and Tera (Daiki Terashita), their basketball IQ has increased,” he added, speaking about Japanese players in the league.

“It’s very physical as a big man down low. The Japanese guards are real scrappy. If you don’t hold the ball in tight, they’ll come in and poke it out of there and just fight you for it.”

Now 30, Hughes spends more time than he used to watching film and studying other players’ statistics to gain knowledge of his opponent’s strengths.

“I’ve learned that if you study your opponent before you play them, you have a better opportunity to disrupt what they want to do,” he said.

The 213-cm Hughes’ memories of the 2005-06 season included vivid recollections of current teammate and 188-cm small forward John “Helicopter” Humphrey, who played for Tokyo then, guarding him.

“He’d never back down,” Hughes said of Humphrey. “So I know that he’d walk into a game with zero fear, and he doesn’t care if he’s playing one minute or 40 minutes. He’s just trying to help us win.”

Weekly accolade: Sendai forward Johnny Dukes is this season’s first recipient of the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP honor for games of Oct. 8-9 and 15-16.

Dukes had 19 points, nine rebounds, three steals and three blocks in Sendai’s season-opening 77-58 victory over Iwate on Oct. 8. A day later, he had an 18-point, eight-rebound, four-assist, two-block performance in the 89ers’ 74-61 triumph.

Around the league: Free agent Billy Knight is in Los Angeles, waiting to return to Japan. On Thursday, he told The Japan Times that none of the league’s current 19 teams have offered him a contract for this season, but he wants to resume his career in the bj-league. Knight, UCLA product, helped the Phoenix earn a championship in 2009-10 and played a pivotal role for the Evessa last season as they reached the Final Four. He’s a proven 20-point scorer without a team, putting him in the market to help any squad improve.

Quotable: “We just have to realize that night in and night out in this league, it’s very competitive and that you have to come out with a focused effort,” Geary said, recounting his team’s outlook as an expansion team.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email toedward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp