The Rizing Fukuoka face an uphill climb in their quest to make the playoffs.
But that won’t stop bench boss Joe “Jellybean” Bryant from preaching fundamentals and pushing his players to keep improving.
Though the Rizing are 11-31 and tied with Takamatsu for the worst record in the 10-team Western Conference, they have undergone major changes since Bryant took over as coach in mid-January.
“I’m excited about this (stretch) run, and we are going to be prepared,” Bryant told The Japan Times. “This is a challenge here and we know this is difficult.”
Fukuoka has gone 5-11 since Bryant, who led the Tokyo Apache for four seasons (2005-09), including back-to-back championship runner-up finishes, was hired. But there have been rays of hope in recent weeks — since nine-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki returned to the lineup after a nine-game absence due to a leg injury. In the seven games since Aoki’s return, the Rizing are 4-3.
“Cohey is and will always be one of the best Japanese guards this league will ever see,” Rizing forward Josh Peppers told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “His presence alone demands respect. His ability to see the floor, and make nearly impossible plays is huge for us. He will be a key component heading down this stretch.”
Bryant said, “Cohey, he knows how to play. He has a great feel for the game.”
Reached by phone in Fukuoka, the former NBA and Italian League forward described Aoki as “the key” to the team’s playoff aspirations, explaining that the guard who starred on his Apache squads forces other teams to pay attention to his every move, thus making them pay if they constantly double team potent scorers Peppers and John “Helicopter” Humphrey.
“He makes everyone guard him,” Bryant stated.
Humphrey understands the importance of Aoki’s presence.
“Cohey makes a big difference,” Humphrey said. “He is a great player and also smart. He is an extra scorer, and you can never have too many of those. We have three players on the court at the same time who can score 30 any night.”
Exhibit A: In a vintage performance, Aoki dropped 30 points on Nara on Feb. 28. He shot 9-for-12 from the floor and 10-for-10 at the charity stripe, and dished out four assists while playing all 40 minutes.
The next three weeks could make or break Fukuoka’s playoff chances. In succession, the Rizing face three West heavyweights — Shiga (25-15), Hamamatsu (34-8) and defending champion Ryukyu (35-7) — in that span. The trio has a 104-30 combined record; the Rizing are 0-10 to date this season against them.
But Bryant has seen positive developments for his squad in recent weeks.
“I’m most pleased with their conditioning — better conditioning,” he said. “We’re playing good basketball now,” Bryant said.
He cited the inspired play of Peppers, a University of Central Florida product, who has elevated his all-around game recently, including 33-, 34- and 40-point outbursts over the past five contests, including a triple-double in that span (19 rebounds and 10 assists along with 33 points on March 1).
In talks with Peppers, Bryant mentioned ex-NBA great Scottie Pippen and current superstar LeBron James as examples of players Peppers should emulate.
“He has a chance to be great doing many things,” Bryant said of Peppers. Peppers’ maturation has reached the point where he “understands to see a play happen before it happens. … He’s seeing the game totally better,” the coach observed.
The well-traveled Peppers embraces the opportunity to be a go-to scorer in his third stint in a Rizing uniform, or do whatever is needed to win games.
“I’ve learned over the years you have to be able to adapt to your own personal situation, different situations require different actions,” Peppers said. “You have to adapt and become what’s best for your teammates. Sometimes you need to be a scorer and sometimes you need to be a distributor. Learning how to balance between the two and picking and choosing my spots are what have helped me over the past few months.”
With the playoff field per conference expanded to eight teams from six for the first time this season, the Rizing are right in the thick of things at the bottom. Seventh-place Oita (15-27) and eighth-place Nara (12-30) are ahead at this moment, but Takamatsu and Fukuoka remain in the mix as well.
“In the road to the playoffs, each game is important,” Bryant said. “Stats are not important. … Like (former Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders owner) Al Davis said, ‘Just win, baby.’ “
Bryant said he would like to see his team go 3-3 against the aforementioned threesome to increase its playoff chances, “where destiny is in our own hands,” instead of relying on other teams’ results to clinch a spot.
“Hopefully it won’t go down to the last weekend (April 24-25) versus Takamatsu,” he said.
Said Peppers: “We still have a chance and that’s all that matters to me, and I will do whatever it takes to take advantage of this situation. … Our road ahead won’t be an easy one, but with the right mentality and focus anything is possible. We’ve had our chances versus all of the teams mentioned, and I’m still confident that we can still achieve our goal of making the playoffs, but we have to focus on the now, taking it quarter by quarter and play by play.
“We understand the big picture, but we have to make each situation as equally important.”
Humphrey echoed Peppers’ sentiments.
“At this point, it don’t matter who we play, we have to win if we want to go to the postseason,” Humphrey said. “The goal is the playoffs, and not just get there but make some noise, so either way we would have to play one of those teams. … I wish we were better off, be we put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. At this point that’s all you can ask for, a real chance to be able to make it.
“It’s not going to be easy, but in life what is?”
The ongoing transformation in Fukuoka has not featured a jaw-dropping number of wins, but the 60-year-old Bryant has instilled confidence in his players. His mission upon arriving in Fukuoka included two key goals: “When I came in, I wanted to make the Japanese players better and have them enjoying the game more.”
So far, he’s succeeding.
“Since the moment Coach Bryant took over, the overall vibe of the team changed,” Peppers said. “He’s very big on making each player as an equally important piece of our equation. His knowledge as a player first and coach second gives us players a chance to be professionals and not robots. Coach leads by example, and teaches each aspect of the game, even joins practice and gets up and down the court with us at his age. Crazy impressive to say the least.”
Upcoming games: The Tokyo-Niigata series tips off on Friday. The rest of the weekend’s action begins a day later: Aomori vs. Saitama, Sendai vs. Yokohama, Fukushima vs. Gunma, Toyama vs. Akita, Shinshu vs. Iwate, Hamamatsu vs. Kyoto, Osaka vs. Shimane, Takamatsu vs. Nara, Oita vs. Ryukyu and the aforementioned Shiga-Fukuoka series. League accolade: Toyama guard Takeshi Mito, a key contributor who’s in his seventh season with the club, earned the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award, it was announced on Wednesday.
Mito’s all-around effort helped the Grouses earn a series sweep against East rival Iwate last weekend, 81-68 in the opener and 81-79 in the rematch.
Mito had 10 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in the first match. In the second game, he contributed 19 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals.
Injury report: Ryukyu star Draelon Burns sustained a right knee injury on March 12 in a team practice. A day later, the team issued a diagnosis stating he’s expected to be sidelined for three weeks, including last weekend’s series against Takamatsu.
The DePaul University product is in his second season with the Golden Kings. He’s averaging 15.5 points in 40 games.
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