Despite the Akita Northern Happinets’ 28-4 record and 11-game winning streak, coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club is tinkering with its chemistry.
After 16 games in an Akita uniform, forward Sylvester Seay has been released. His replacement? Forward Deshawn Stephens, who’s been let go by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, The Japan Times learned on Tuesday.
In a Wednesday press release, the Phoenix announced Stephens has been released.
Though the Happinets already have plenty of youth on the squad — for instance, All-Star guards Yuki Togashi and Shigehiro Taguchi are 20 and 23, respectively — the aforementioned changes make the team even younger. Seay is 28; Stephens is 24.
Seay, a Fresno State product, averaged 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds for Akita. The 208-cm veteran shot 29.3 percent from 3-point range and 36.2 percent from inside the arc.
Stephens, a San Diego State product, contributed 9.1 points and 6.0 rebounds in 27 games for Hamamatsu, shooting 5-for-27 on 3s and 53.7 percent (95-for-177) on 2s.
Stephens met his new Akita teammates on Tuesday and was slated to practice with the Eastern Conference’s first-place team for the first time on Wednesday, according to a well-connected league source.
The Happinets, meanwhile, are preparing for a highly anticipated mentor vs. pupil matchup, pitting Nakamura against his ex-Hamamatsu assistant Ryuji Kawai, the Shinshu Brave Warriors coach, in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.
Shinshu (20-8, fourth place) is 0-2 against its Eastern Conference rival this season, but the Warriors are 11-3 at home. Shinshu has won five straight and seven of its last 10 games, and guard Shota Konno is having his best season as a pro, scoring 13.4 ppg. Konno ought to be a top candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Happinets center Chas McFarland is the team’s lone starter who didn’t start in the All-Star Game on Jan. 26 in Akita, but his 13.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots per game have helped stabilize the frontcourt.
Rizing update: Fukuoka swept Saitama over the weekend, improving to 13-17 and giving new Canadian bench boss James Duncan a successful start in the bj-league.
“I’m pleased that we were able to get two road wins,” Duncan told The Japan Times. “It’s always difficult winning on the road and we did not have much practice time together to implement my new system. Defensively, we did a better job controlling the defensive glass and slowing them down in transition.
“Overall, we took some small steps in the right direction but we have a long way to go and much work to do in the second half of the season. If we are committed to getting better as a team, positive things will happen for us.”
Not impressed: A league insider who has closely followed the Gunma Crane Thunders since the team’s inception — the squad went 15-37 last season and is 6-24 through Sunday — believes team president Yasufumi Tanabe is to blame for the franchise’s struggles.
The source told The Japan Times that forward/center Darko Cohadarevic’s departure last week is one example of the problem. The Serbian was the team’s second-leading scorer (13.9 points per game), and has resurfaced with the Osaka Evessa, who won two games last weekend with their new forward. (Newcomer D’Andre Bell, a former Chiba Jets standout, also made his debut for Osaka on Saturday.)
“Darko asked for his release from Gunma. He wasn’t happy with the situation and the way the president is doing things,” the insider said. “He (Tanabe) has no clue what he is doing from a basketball or business perspective. He’s absolutely lost. But that’s business as usual in the bj-league with many teams.”
The source also said that coach Ryan Blackwell was fired in December when the team was 3-16 as a cost-cutting move. Or as he put it: “He let (Blackwell) go so he could save money since the team was losing.”
Gunma’s other three imports on the opening week roster — forwards Trey Britton, Marvell Waithe and Lewis Witcher — have all been replaced as the team rebuilds under Hiroki Fujita, Blackwell’s replacement.
Upcoming games: Twenty of 21 teams are in action this weekend. Here are the matchups not involving Shinshu and Akita: Aomori vs. Tokyo, Sendai vs. Yokohama, Toyama vs. Iwate, Gunma vs. Niigata, Saitama vs. Shimane, Hamamatsu vs. Oita, Shiga vs. Takamatsu, Fukuoka vs. Kyoto and Ryukyu vs. Osaka.
Toyama had a bye last weekend. Now it’s Nara’s turn.
What a weekend: Kyoto sharpshooter David Palmer scored 28 and 25 points against Niigata on Saturday and Sunday. He made 9 of 10 3-point attempts as the Hannaryz recorded a series split. He shot 9-for-12 from inside the arc and was 8-for-9 at the free-throw line. Vintage numbers for a player with picture-perfect shooting fundamentals. Palmer, one of the league’s original stars during the Osaka dynasty years, is averaging 13.7 ppg.
League accolades: Veteran forward Dionisio Gomez of the Shiga Lakestars earned the Lawson/Ponta MVP award for his overall performance last weekend.
The 203-cm Gomez, a University of Arkansas product, had 20 points, 14 rebounds and three assists in an 86-83 victory over the Aomori Wat’s on Saturday. A day later, he had 17 points, 11 boards and three assists in Shiga’s 67-65 triumph.
Gomez, a native of Panama, is averaging 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in 29 games.
The January MVP honor was issued to Iwate Big Bulls forward Gyno Pomare, who helped his team win all six of his games in the year’s first month.
The University of San Diego alum averaged 16.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots in those six games.
On the move: The Niigata Albirex BB have signed veteran forward Thomas Kennedy, who was a key playmaker for the 2012-13 champion Yokohama B-Corsairs.
Kennedy began the season with the Shimane Susanoo Magic (10 games, 17.1 ppg) and moved on to the NBL’s Chiba Jets (14 games, 14.2 ppg), reuniting with ex-Yokohama coach Reggie Geary.
The Jets are 8-22, tied with Hitachi Sunrockers for the worst record in the NBL’s Eastern Conference. Chiba defected from the bj-league after last season.
Kennedy fills a roster spot vacated by forward Suleiman Braimoh, who averaged 8.5 points in 22 games for the Albirex. On a team where 3-point shooting is a primary focus, Braimoh’s 25-percent shooting from beyond the arc did not solidify his spot on the roster.
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