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Big man Holm gives Albirex a powerful presence inside


Staff Writer

What was the best offseason pickup by a bj-league team?

You could make a strong case that Niigata Albirex BB center Chris Holm fits the above description.

Holm, a rebounding machine, gives the Albirex their best post presence inside since Nick Davis manned the middle during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, the first of which ended in a championship runnerup spot.

Julius Ashby, Niigata’s steady big man last season, is now a key part of the Shiga Lakestars squad. He’s a strong inside player, but not as physically imposing as the 212-cm, 120-kg Holm nor as relentless on the boards as Davis was during Niigata’s first two seasons in the bj-league.

With a two-game sweep over the two-time reigning champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Albirex (14-8) became the first Eastern Conference club to move into first place since the calendar flipped to 2012.

Holm’s 22-point, 20-rebound effort on Tuesday was a giant reminder of his impact. A former Sendai star, the league’s leading rebounder (14.5 boards per game; Shimane’s Lee Roberts is second at 11.2) forces teams to pay a lot of attention to the big fellow in the low post, which opens up space on the perimeter for sharpshooter Yuichi Ikeda, Nile Murry, Dwight Gordon, Kimitake Sato, Erron Maxey, among others.

Former Niigata and Takamatsu player Matt Garrison, in his first season as the Albirex coach (Masaya Hirose had led the team since 2000), clearly recognizes what Holm can do, and he has used his center wisely since the season tipped off. As a result, the team has the proper foundation in place, and Shuhei Komatsu and Hirotaka Kondo also look comfortable and confident in Garrison’s system and have made key contributions, too.

Interesting times: Since sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura entered the bj-league in 2008 along with Hamamatsu, which defected from the JBL (the team was previously called the OSG Phoenix), his teams have consistently won the overwhelming majority of their games.

The Phoenix made three trips to the Final Four, won a pair of championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and went 117-33, a .780 winning percentage, in the regular season. Then Nakamura left Hamamatsu, creating a titanic shift in the East, and was handed the reins as the Akita Northern Happinets’ second coach. The club went 18-32 as an expansion team in 2010-11 under Bob Pierce.

The Happinets are currently 13-9, sandwiched between Niigata and Hamamatsu (14-10). The Sendai 89ers, Pierce’s new team, are 11-11 and the fifth-place Toyama Grouses are 10-10. Akita has lost nearly one-third as many games as the Nakamura-led Phoenix did over the three previous seasons. The team, though, is a legitimate contender to reach the Final Four and contend for the title.

Leading scorer Ricky Woods (20.1 points per game), Stanley Ocitti (14.2) and E.J. Drayton (10.1) are the top three offensive options. Kazuhiro Shoji (8.7 ppg) remains a dependable scoring option and a potent perimeter threat despite being one of the league’s oldest players (he turns 38 in April). Curtis Terry, half-brother of NBA guard Jason Terry, is averaging 8.7 ppg since joining the club in November.

But the Happinets’ depth is questionable. The rest of the current roster (seven players) has scored a combined 286 points. And it remains to be seen if the team has enough proven prime-time players to win a do-or-die game late in the season.

The loss of high-scoring guard Michael Gardener last month created a big void on the team’s roster, though one should expect the perpetual wheeling-and-dealing Nakamura to lure another game-changing talent to Tohoku in the coming weeks.

Akita’s recent struggles — a 3-5 record in December after a 10-4 start — have leveled the playing field in the East, sending the signal that the conference has become a wide open race.

Indeed, over the past three seasons, the Phoenix were the superior team in the East. Now, the race to the top should be a whole lot more interesting between now and the end of the regular season in late April.

Upcoming games: Yokohama plays host to Saitama in a series that tips off on Friday. Six others series commence on Saturday: Akita vs. Toyama, Sendai vs. Kyoto, Shinshu vs. Iwate, Shimane vs. Shiga, Takamatsu vs. Osaka and Miyazaki vs. Niigata.

Around the league: The Japan Times has learned that Ryukyu guard Narito Namizato, who made a game-winning 3-pointer with 2 seconds left on Tuesday to lead the Golden Kings to a dramatic comeback, has been dubbed a “trash talker” by some people in the upstart league.

Talented and young, Namizato, 22, is also confident in his ability to be a game-changing player. He’s averaging 11.9 points per game in his first season in the bj-league.

That said, one coach provided this analysis of Namizato: “I’ve heard those comments before from our Japanese players. It’s one reason Namizato has been in and out of the starting lineup. Our American players were laughing after one of our games there because Namizato tried to talk trash to one of them, but they couldn’t make out what he was saying because it sounded like some old slang, which he either didn’t understand or mispronounced.

“But all the great scorers have that selfish level of self-confidence or overconfidence. The truly great ones figure out when to take the shot themselves, and when to pass and trust their teammates. The bad ones become mindless gunners that no one wants to play with.

“The biggest problem is that the Japanese system usually squashes that individual spirit, while the U.S creates too much of it,” the coach added. “Which is why there are so few Japanese scorers who can not only shoot but create shots on their own. (Toyama’s Masashi) Joho in the bj-league and (Link Tochigi’s Takuya) Kawamura in the JBL are the best examples in each league, and both are routinely criticized for being too selfish. As is Kobe (Bryant), AI (Allen Iverson), or any other scorer. The challenge is always to find the balance that works for the individual and for the team. And very few achieve it.

“Will Namizato? Only if he grows up and matures. But with the bj-league system, and great teammates like David Palmer, Jeff Newton, Anthony McHenry and Tsubasa Yonamine, he has perhaps the best environment to try to find the best balance between scorer and team player. I hope he learns and grows and continues to reach his potential.

“The fact is that there are lots of players who are sitting on benches not playing in the JBL who would blossom and become very good, productive players if they were in the bj-league.” …

B-Corsairs spokesman Takao Ando said the team is interested in playing in the All-Japan Basketball Championship, also called the Emperor’s Cup, next January. …

Sendai has signed Croatian big man Filip Toncinic, a 213-cm performer, the team announced on Wednesday.

“Filip is a versatile big man who has the shooting touch and passing ability to play away from the basket, but also the size to play down low,” Pierce told The Japan Times. “I have long admired the all-around game that many European big men develop that compliments what many American players do. We wanted someone big enough to challenge and battle Rashaad (Singleton) in practice, but also able to play away from the basket when they’re on the court together.”

Toncinic, 27, attended Texas A&M-Corpus Christi from 2007-10.

“Filip played college basketball in Texas, so he understands the U.S. system and players,” Pierce said. “This past summer he was the MVP of the Gran Canaria Summer League in Spain, and has been playing for Zadar, one of the top teams in Croatia. As a young 19-year-old player he played against the Japan national team when then-head coach (and current Shimane sideline supervisor) Zeljko Pavlicevic brought the team to train and play in Croatia.

“He is a hard worker with a great personality who should be a good fit for the Sendai 89ers and for the bj-league.”

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