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Obuchi’s return to form gives Evessa more firepower


Staff Writer

For Masashi Obuchi, an innate scoring sense and recognition of when and where to take shots served him well during his early days in the bj-league.

Now, in his third season in the league, and second in an Osaka Evessa uniform, the veteran guard is returning to form after a season-ending knee injury in December 2010 limited him to 17 games last season.

Obuchi has had a bigger role on offense in recent games. His scoring output has increased in each of the past five games, from eight points against the Oita HeatDevils on Jan. 22 to nine and 11 in the next series to 14- and 17-point performances against the host Shiga Lakestars ast weekend.

The 28-year-old received the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week Award for his strong effort against the Hannaryz.

Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell said Obuchi has worked hard to regain the flexibility and mobility after the knee injury, including specific weight-room work to strengthen his knee. He estimated that Obuchi is now back to 85 or 90 percent in terms of the athleticism he had before the injury.

“He’s definitely improving every day,” Blackwell said of Obuchi in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Key scorers Lynn Washington, Cohey Aoki, Wayne Marshall and newcomers Mike Bell and Bobby St. Preux are benefiting from Obuchi’s increased productivity.

“This creates more scoring opportunities for other guys,” Blackwell said, citing the fact that defenders must also key on Obuchi.

As a skilled shooter with a well-rounded game, Obuchi has responded favorably to Blackwell’s challenge to be more aggressive on offense.

“He’s even better than he was last year,” Blackwell said.

Obuchi played 22 games for the Ryukyu Golden Kings in 2009-10 and averaged 10.5 points. He averaged 6.5 points per game in limited action last season.

*In a wide-ranging interview, Blackwell was also asked who he thinks are the leading MVP candidates this season.

He responded by saying Ryukyu’s Jeff Newton, who has played in five title games (four victories), is at the top of his list.

“He does things that don’t show up in the box score,” Blackwell said of former Osaka star Newton.

Blackwell added: “What he brings to his team every day is (impressive), and defensively he’s very smart, and he’s going to play hard every minute.”

Two-time MVP Washington is also in the mix, Blackwell insisted.

“Obviously, Lynn’s doing a great job here,” the coach said. “He’s a strong rebounder and great defensive player and his assist totals are going up.”

Blackwell thinks Saitama’s John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Hamamatsu’s Jermaine Dixon (“He just gets everybody involved on the team”), Fukuoka’s Kevin Palmer (He’s having a really good season and has carried them in a lot of games”), Toyama’s

Masashi Joho and Aoki are in the MVP conversation, too. He pointed out, though, that the Broncos’ poor record would hurt Helicopter’s chances of winning it.

Asked if Aoki, who had seven months between the Tokyo Apache’s final game (March 10, 2011) and his debut with the Evessa in October, was showing signs of fatigue due to the long layoff, Blackwell said the five-time All-Star “does a good job of taking care of himself. . . . It always seems he’s the same person.”

Now in his second season as head coach, Blackwell has had a chance to critique his own work as a coach. He said his rookie season at the helm was a good learning experience. “I learned what I should do or could do. I’m definitely better at it now. I try not to overdo it. I try not to micromanage. . . . I’m more comfortable as the coach.”

And sometimes he’ll practice with the team in order to make a point, to demonstrate the concept he wants to emphasize.

Blackwell, a Syracuse University product, revealed that he’s a serious student of the game. For example, if there are 15 NBA games scheduled on a certain day, he’ll watch highlights from all of those contests, and also do the same for every U.S. college basketball game. This is a daily occurrence, he said.

*Osaka’s defense has been impressive. The Evessa are holding foes to a league-low 69.5 points per game.

Before the season started, Blackwell set a target of allowing low-70s point totals while scoring in the middle-to-low 80s. He said opponents’ 69.5 ppg “looks good on paper,” but doesn’t want his players to become complacent.

“I want our guys to be consistent,” Blackwell said.

*By adding Bell, an Oita HeatDevils and Sendai 89ers veteran, and St. Preux, a former 89er, to the roster in recent weeks, the Evessa have cleverly tweaked with their identity. They released Lavell Payne and Lawrence Blackledge to clear room on the roster.

Blackledge, meanwhile, has flourished since joining the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, helping the two-time defending champs go 6-0 in that span. A shot-blocking, high-energy rebounder, Blackledge was a key performer for the Evessa, but the Osaka offense was not operating as a smooth, efficient product.

“The defense has been good,” Blackwell said, “but offensively we just were not getting the numbers we wanted. … Our offense became too predictable. That was part of the problem … and we were not shooting well early on.”

Bell’s agility is a welcome addition for the Evessa. Teaming up with Washington and Marshall in the frontcourt, “they are guys that can move their feet well,” said Blackwell, also mentioning that St. Preux’s quickness and active defense will help, especially on the perimeter.

*After a pair of losses to West rival Osaka last weekend, Shiga coach Alan Westover offered the following insights about the Evessa:

“Osaka’s defense is based on protecting the basket, and they do that well. They have a big frontline, good athletic ability, and some smart and experienced players. They force you to beat them from the perimeter — you have to hit some shots, and unfortunately for ourselves, we didn’t do that very well.

“Bell and St. Preux give them a couple of experienced players, and two more guys that can hit the 3. Do they make them better? I don’t know, it gives them a different look, and only time will tell if they make them better.”

Time to regroup: Before fully turning his attention to the 20-8 Kyoto Hannaryz, who are three games ahead of Shiga in the West standings, Westover analyzed what took place over the weekend, 70-69 and 88-66 defeats to Osaka.

“It wasn’t a very good weekend for us,” Westover said. “The first game was close and could have gone either way, and we were probably unlucky to lose as we missed a layup with a couple of seconds to go.

“In the second game, it was even at halftime, and then the wheels on the bus fell off for us. We couldn’t do anything right in the second half, and they got on a roll. … For us it’s back to the drawing board, time to regroup and get ready for a very good Kyoto team.”

It’s a small world after all: Sendai 89ers center Rashaad Singleton blocked seven shots in back-to-back games over the weekend to help his club earn a sweep against the Niigata Albirex BB. The big fellow’s game-changing skills — especially rebounding and defensive instincts — are well documented, but it may surprise some that Singleton’s career path is closely tied to another bj-league gladiator.

Singleton makes his offseason home in Tampa, Florida, where he maintains a busy schedule in the gym and in the weight room. He also works out and competes on a regular basis with Shimane Susanoo Magic big man Jeral “Stretch” Davis in the Sunshine State. Davis, who was profiled in this newspaper on Sunday, leads the bj-league in blocked shots (3.9). Singleton is third at 2.8.

“Me and Jeral are like brothers,” Singleton told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “We train in Tampa, Florida. There are a lot of ball players from all of over the country that live in Tampa. It is a great city that has a nice weather and a lot to offer and it’s just an awesome place to get some real work done.

“We work out on a strict schedule, sometimes starting at 5 a.m. depending on the exercises. We do a lot of cardio (cardiovascular exercises) and weights in the afternoon, then we concentrate on basketball drills and getting up shots. We then usually meet with other pros, NBA and overseas (guys), and play pickup (ball) in the afternoon and get up extra shots at night.

“Me and Jeral both share an extreme passion for defense. We work out with machines such as the Vertimax which is basically a platform that we have to jump from while being held down with elastic bands. This allows me to work on my timing for such things as blocking shots.

“We take our summer workouts very seriously. We both feel like we are only going to become much better in the years to come.”

So how did Singleton and Davis become so well acquainted?

Their career paths crossed in the summer of 2009.

“Me and Stretch both had NBA workouts scheduled,” Singleton remembered. “My first two were with the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavilers. Jeral also had a workout with the Knicks a day after my workout. My workout included some big-time players such as B.J. Mullens, Jrue Holiday, Gerald Henderson and Stephen Curry.”

So it’s no surprise that Singleton wasn’t completely relaxed before and during this high-profile job audition.

“I remember being a little nervous, because the Knicks had always been one of my favorite teams,” he said. “But I was still comfortable and I ended up having a good workout and the next day (then-team president) Donnie Walsh called me into his office and he wanted me to join the Knicks in the NBA Summer League, in Las Vegas later in the summer.

“So after accepting I walked out of his office, and was extremely excited because the Knicks had always been one of my favorite teams. Immediately after that, my attention was on the court because there was a loud commotion. Jeral was going through his vertical jump test, and he was jumping higher than the machine could go. They literally had to put the vertical machine on top of a chair in order to calculate Jeral’s vertical.

“I suffered a leg injury the first game of the summer league, but the experience all together was a great time and we still look back and laugh about me being thrilled to be with the Knicks in summer league, then shocked the next second watching Jeral out-jump the vertical machine.

“We’ve been training together ever since.”

Looking back on his team’s development this season, Sendai coach Bob Pierce observed that the training partners’ rivalry was a unique storyline on Dec. 4, a day when forward Johnny Dukes wasn’t in the starting lineup.

In his second start of the season, Singleton finished that game with 13 rebounds and five blocks in a 95-70 victory.

“The game was against Shimane and Jeral Davis, so I knew he’d be motivated,” Pierce said.

“About two weeks later, he became a permanent starter, and his defense and shot blocking have been keys in some of our best wins over really good teams like Okinawa (Ryukyu), Kyoto and Niigata.”

In 2009-10, while playing for the Oita HeatDevils under former NBA forward Brian Rowsom, Singleton made a big impression on Pierce.

“I really like how he played in Oita, and then last season when I saw what an impact Jeral Davis had with his shot blocking in Shimane, I thought I ought to try to get Rashaad if I ever had a chance,” Pierce
said. “After he got here, I mentioned Jeral and was shocked to learn that not only did he know him, (but) they shared a place in Tampa and trained together. I had no idea.

“I think both players are great examples of big guys who keep working and improving, and both will probably continue to get better because of their work ethic in the offseason.”

Around the league: Organized by the Niigata Albirex BB and the WJBL, there was a hoop twin bill in Niigata Prefecture last weekend, and it
proved to be a success.

“I loved the doubleheader both days with the Rabbits and JX Sunflowers,” a league insider said. “Maybe too soon for bj-league/JBL cooperation, but bj-league teams other than Niigata would be smart to
have more WJBL doubleheaders.”…

Sendai guard Takehiko Shimura, whose team faced Niigata last weekend, has climbed into the No.2 spot in assists per game. He’s averaging 5.5 and only trails Saitama floor leader Kenny Satterfield’s 6.8.
Shimane’s Edward Yamamoto is third at 5.3. Rounding out the top five are Hamamatsu’s Jermaine Dixon (5.2) and Oita’s Naoto Takushi and Iwate’s Yoshiaki Yamamoto (both at 4.7).

By the numbers: Aoki and Ryukyu Golden Kings veteran David Palmer are both among the top five in 3-point shooting percentage and free-throw shooting accuracy: Aoki’s numbers: 47.5 on 3s (No. 2) and 91.5 percent
at the line, tops in the league; Palmer’s numbers: 53.6 percent on 3s (No. 1) and 87.1 percent on 3s (fifth overall). … Sendai big man Chris Holm is by far the league leader in rebounds (14.4 per game). Fukuoka’s Gary Hamilton is No. 2 at 10.6 and Kyoto teammates Rick Rickert (10.5) and Lance Allred (10.4) are right behind Hamilton. Chiba’s Jamel Staten and Iwate’s Shawn Malloy are both also averaging 10.4 boards per contest. … Unlike the rival JBL which has one only 20-points per game scorer (Link Tochigi Brex standout Takuya Kawamura), there are six 20 ppg scorers in the bj-league: Shimane’s Michael Parker (24.0, gunning for his fourth straight scoring title), Chiba’s Maurice Hargrow (21.6), Fukuoka’s Kevin Palmer (20.6),
Saitama’s John Flowers (20.2), Staten (20.1) and Saitama’s John “Helicopter” Humphrey (20.0).

Upcoming games: This week’s schedule begins with the Yokohama B-Corsairs playing host to the Shimane Susanoo Magic in a Friday-Saturday series. Other weekend action commences on Saturday:
Akita Northern Happinets vs. Sendai 89ers, Iwate Big Bulls vs. Niigata Albirex BB, Toyama Grouses vs. Rizing Fukuoka (Atsushi Kanazawa’s coaching debut with the Rizing), Saitama Broncos vs. Miyazaki Shining Suns, Eastern Conference-leading Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix vs. league-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings (a rematch of last May’s title game; the Phoenix downed the Kings 82-68), Kyoto Hannaryz vs. Shiga Lakestars, Osaka Evessa vs. Shinshu Brave Warriors and Oita HeatDevils vs. Chiba Jets.

Quotable: “He’s a good worker, has learned the system well, and is a real team guy. I need to get him some more minutes, and I feel that he’s a guy that can really help us down the stretch.” —

Westover said, giving his assessment of veteran forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano, who’s known for his defense and hard-nosed play around the basket.

Quotable, part II: “The business of basketball is about timing and being in the right place at the right time to fill a particular need of the franchise. Not making a team isn’t necessarily a testament of your ability.” –

Allred told Pro Basketball News in a 2009 interview which is a true observation about the NBA, the bj-league and dozens of other pro circuits around the world.

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