Without much fanfare, the Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka are in the midst of an impressive, yet steady climb up the Japan pro basketball ladder.
When the B. League was established as a three-division, 45-club circuit before the 2016-17 campaign, the Rizing were assigned to B3.
It wasn’t where Fukuoka, a former bj-league championship runner-up club, wanted to be, though.
The Kyushu-based team made winning its mission and ran roughshod over the third flight last season, posting an impressive 46-6 record (tops among nine clubs) with Kentaro Hori at the helm. As a result, the Rizing Zephyr were promoted to the 18-team second division; the Kanazawa Samuraiz, who went 44-8, also earned promotion.
New bench boss Ryuji Kawai took over for the current season and has guided the club to tremendous success in B2.
The Rizing Zephyr are 24-4 entering this weekend’s All-Star Game in Kumamoto. They are tied with the Akita Northern Happinets for the best record in the second division.
Fukuoka is the top shooting team in B2, converting 46.2 percent of its shots. Kawai’s club is also No. 1 in assists (21.4 per game).
Veteran forward Josh Peppers, who made his Rizing debut in the 2007-08 bj-league season, is the club’s leading scorer (17.0 points per game, No. 9 overall in B2). He is No. 3 in the second division in steals (1.6 per game), second on the team in rebounds (5.6) and second in assists (3.9).
Faye Pape Mour is Fukuoka’s No. 1 rebounder (8.0), while captain Yasuhiro Yamashita, who has started all 28 games at point guard, is contributing a steady 7.0 ppg, 4.57 assists (No. 9 in B2) and 1.46 steals (tied for the seventh-best average in the second flight).
Big man Eric Jacobsen has missed five games, but had he played a few more games he’d be mathematically among the top 10 stat leaders. In 23 games, the 23-year-old Arizona State product is averaging 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
In a recent interview, Peppers, now 32, credited Kawai for setting the tone for the team’s success.
In other words, Fukuoka picked up where it left off last season, only doing so against different opponents.
As an understudy to Kazuo Nakamura, who led the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to great heights during the bj-league era, including back-to-back titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11, the 42-year-old Kawai learned from one of the best in the business in Japan.
“Coach Ryuji has been around a lot great basketball and has definitely learned a thing or two from one of the greatest coaches this league has seen, Coach Kazu,” Peppers said. “Coach Ryuji’s style of coaching our team is never set and always adapting to matchups and what best suits our team.
“He’s most definitely a numbers guy (team stats) and pays close attention to detail. Being that we have a veteran team he’s able to articulate his style without compromising due to IQ.”
Kawai followed in Nakamura’s footsteps as the Phoenix head coach in 2011, inheriting a team with two championships. Hamamatsu returned to the bj-league title game in 2012, but fell to the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the title match. He stayed in charge at Hamamatsu (now known as the San-en NeoPhoenix) until early in 2013, followed by coaching stints with the Shinshu Brave Warriors and Oita HeatDevils/Ehime Orange Vikings. The latter name was adapted by the relocated franchise for the B. League era.
With Kawai running the show, the Rizing Zephyr have embraced a blue-collar work ethic.
“Our team is full of underdog-type players, who equally play a huge part in our success,” said Peppers, a University of Central Florida alum who played an instrumental role in the Rizing’s trip to the aforementioned bj-league championship game in 2013. He rejoined the franchise for a third time in 2014.
“Masa (Masahiro Kano), Satoshi (Ishitani) and Seiya (Kano) to name a few are most definitely the gel to our team, mending all of the high-powered players together.”
Peppers is one of the most recognizable faces in franchise history, having suited up for the club and against it (making stops with the Phoenix, Sendai 89ers, Shiga Lakestars and Iwate Big Bulls) for more than a decade. At this stage of his career, he definitely understands his role isn’t always to be an overpowering scorer.
“My game has definitely changed over the years,” the Memphis, Tennessee, native said. “I’m a scorer naturally, but learning how be a threat in other areas has been my focus as of recently. Creating for other players, and playing within the flow of the game has allowed me to be more effective. Buying into the system, doing whatever needs to be done to win (and) being a veteran leader with contiguous energy. All in all the biggest change in my game is thinking less about self and more about what the team needs.”
As a newcomer to the Rizing Zephyr this season, Jacobsen has been an impressive contributor. A model of consistency.
Peppers described his frontcourt mate as a “very solid player who has yet to tap fully into his potential, but still gives us a near-mirror image performance day in and day out.”
Asked if Kawai embraced the mission of getting the team promoted to B1 as the challenge of his career, Peppers offered a revealing answer. It wasn’t a one-man goal, he insisted.
“I personally feel that not only coach, but us as a unit collectively see this as a challenge,” Peppers told The Japan Times. “I feel we all have the same mindset in that aspect.”
Clearly, self-belief played a pivotal factor in Fukuoka’s rise from B3 to B2. But, obviously, it wasn’t the only factor.
Just ask Peppers.
“With the amount of effort put into creating this team last season, it was almost expected for us to win B3,” he said. “Confidence of course, but more so a drive to prove that we belong.”