Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Key questions entering 10th season

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Japan’s first men’s pro basketball circuit tips off its 10th season with 10 games on Saturday.

Now with a new title sponsor on board, the Turkish Airlines bj-league will have one franchise making its regular-season debut on the same day. The Fukushima Firebonds play host to the Aomori Wat’s at Koriyama Gymnasium. Tipoff is 6 p.m.

Here are 10 key questions as the season begins:

■ Will reigning champion Ryukyu (without six-time title winner and league icon Jeff Newton, who was not re-signed) remain as dominant at home and as tenacious on defense?

■ Will the other 2013-14 Final Four participants — runnerup Akita, Kyoto and Toyama — replace the overall impact and productivity of guard Yuki Togashi, center Chris Holm and forward Ira Brown, respectively, without suffering a big drop in wins?

■ How will first-year Happinets head coach Makoto Hasegawa, an Akita native and schoolboy hero at Noshiro Technical High School, handle the pressure of replacing his mentor, Kazuo Nakamura, a league legend?

■ Can longtime NBA assistant coach Charlie Parker, the new face of the franchise, and journeyman center Melvin Ely, who also spent several years in the world’s elite basketball league, transform Gunma into a winning squad in its third season (and after 76 losses in its first 104 games)?

■ Is revamped Shiga — led by newcomers Jeff Parmer, Ray Nixon, Chris Holm and Terrance Woodbury and hometown hero Yu Okada, who is starting his second stint in a Lakestars uniform — primed for a run at the title under new coach Koto Toyama?

■ Can the Firebonds, guided by 28-year-old bench boss Theo Fujita, defy the odds and earn a playoff berth as the Wat’s did in their inaugural 2013-14 season?

■ Will sideline supervisors Yukinori Suzuki (Oita) or Kenzo Maeda (Takamatsu) steer his team to its first playoff appearance since 2007 or ’09, respectively?

■ After three straight Final Four trips, is this the year that Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi leads his team into the title game for the first time?

■ Did Saitama, coming off a 5-47 campaign, make a series of smart personnel decisions, including the hiring of Kazuaki Shimoji as the team’s ninth season-opening bench boss in 10 seasons?

■ Is there a breakout star or stars, from among the 22 teams, who’ll catch everyone’s attention and become a fan favorite, starting in early October?

An interview with Dai Oketani: The Iwate head coach, beginning his third season at the helm, dished out keen insight about his team and the league on Wednesday.

The Big Bulls, who had a 40-12 record last season, mirror their coach’s fiery desire to win every game. He said the team’s passion is its biggest strength.

Asked which newcomers on his team have caught his eye the most, the two-time, title-winning coach told The Japan Times, “Jun (Nakanishi), Hayato (Kantake), and Wayne (Arnold), but (Abdullahi) Kuso is getting ready. . . . Everybody will know Hayato more as a great player. He can shoot from anywhere and he knows how to play five-on-five.”

Oketani, who led the HeatDevils and Golden Kings before taking over in Iwate, wasn’t shy about expressing his team’s No. 1 goal. “We will capture the championship,” said Oketani.

Asked to name two or three players who set the tone for their teams on offense and defense, Oketani decided on Ryukyu floor leader Anthony McHenry, a former regular-season and playoff MVP, Toyama guard Masashi Joho, the 2013-14 regular-season MVP, and Kyoto power forward Reggie Warren.

With the interview shifting to the league in general, Oketani gave his thoughts on a few of the league’s younger Japanese standouts.

“We already know good young players like (Ryukyu’s) Ryuichi Kishimoto, Narito Namizato and Morihisa Yamauchi and (Tokyo’s) Yuji Ide,” he said. “But we have some sleepers, too: Shoya Uchimura (Akita), Kenta Tateyama (Akita), Takumi Masuko (Fukushima) and Yusuke Kodera (Gunma).”

Looking back on a season that featured a league-record four 40-win teams, including the 43-win Ryukyu squad, Oketani expressed delight in what he saw in the title match at Ariake Colosseum.

He said, “The game was the best. The fun was the best. The atmosphere was the best. It was the best moment to me, even (though) we weren’t playing.”

Weekend schedule: All of Saturday’s other season-opening games are set to begin at 6 p.m. The list includes Sendai vs. Iwate, Niigata vs. Akita, Saitama vs. Tokyo, Hamamatsu vs. Ryukyu, Shiga vs. Shimane, Kyoto vs. Oita, Osaka vs. Fukuoka, Nara vs. Takamatsu and Toyama vs. Yokohama.

Catching up with . . . Marcus Toney-El: The former Saitama star is beginning his second season as the boys varsity basketball coach at North 13th Street Tech, an Essex County vocational school in Newark, New Jersey. Toney-El told The Japan Times he has big aspirations for his squad this season.

“My first year was a struggle,” he wrote in an email. “I got the job late, so it was tough breaking their habits in such a short period of time. With this being my first full year with summer training and preseason training, I expect us to be significantly better.”

Toney-El starred for the Broncos in the league’s first two seasons and finished second overall in scoring in 2005-06.

Q&A with . . . Shimane coach Reggie Hanson: As he enters his first season-opening week at the helm, the Susanoo Magic sideline supervisor was interviewed by The Japan Times on Thursday.

What do you consider the team’s biggest strengths?

“I am still trying to figure that out. We have nine new players,” he said.

What are the biggest question marks for you at this point?

“How quick we can develop chemistry,” he replied.

Which newcomer has impressed you the most during the preseason? Why?

“Joe Chapman,” offered Hanson, who took over as coach in January for the struggling team, referring to the Marquette University alum who starred in the Bambitious Nara backcourt last season. “He works hard everyday and he is a great leader so far.”

What would you say is the team’s top goal for 2014-15? And what’s the top goal for the first 10 or so games of the season, roughly 1/5 of the season?

“Our goal this season is to get Shimane back to the playoffs,” he said of a team that went 11-41 last season. “It will be a difficult task but not impossible. We want to get better each game and continue to build team chemistry.”

Who are two to three younger players you are excited about becoming (you hope) solid contributors?

“Most of our guys are veteran players,” he commented. “So building chemistry will take time. They come from different teams and have to adjust to new roles with our team.”

Who are your most 2-3 important players to set the tone on the court on offense and defense?

“The way I look at it the PG (point guard) has to be one of your most important positions if not the most important because he has to direct the team from both ends of the floor,” he admitted. “But you have to have one or two of your American players step up to help direct the team as well.

As this league enters its 10th season, its growth and history are big things, too. So do you have a favorite anecdote or thought on the league’s history and players, games, personality, fans, etc.

“I just think the league has to do whatever it takes to grow basketball in Japan,” stated Hanson, a former JBL star and longtime University of Kentucky assistant coach. “The potential for growth is great. Building a fan base is very important for stability. That is one of the great things about Shimane. The fan base is great.”

Shimane update: After his release from the Susanoo Magic last week, veteran forward Edward Morris joined the Firebonds, it was announced on Tuesday. Morris played for the Cinq Reves last season.

Shimane, meanwhile, this week signed a pair of big men in Bingo Merriex, a 206-cm Texas Christian product, and 203-cm veteran Isiah Brown, who attended East Tennessee State.

Yokohoma adds two: The B-Corsairs this week signed guard Warren Niles, a 24-year-old Oral Roberts University alum, and veteran big man Dzaflo Larkai.

The 194-cm Niles played in Italy’s second division last season.

The 33-year-old Larkai suited up for the Sendai 89ers. He’s also played for Hamamatsu and Ryukyu in past seasons, winning titles with both franchises.

The last word: “Our team has a lot of work to do and we have to stay positive throughout the process. The veterans on this team have to help a lot and know this is a grind.” — said Akita power forward Ruben Boykin, who led the league in rebounding in 2013-14 (13.5 per game), sizing up the challenge that lies ahead.

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