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Friday, Dec. 28, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Apache guard Aoki continues climb to stardom


Staff writer

There are times this season when Cohey Aoki is the best offensive player on the basketball court.

News photo
Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki is one of the bj-league's most exciting players to watch. A sure-handed dribbler, Aoki likes to drive to the lane, put up layups, dish the ball off or earn a trip to the foul line. JUN NAKAZAWA / TOKYO APACHE PHOTO

Increasingly throughout the past 1 1/2 seasons, Aoki is proving that this will be his trademark in the years to come.

With a quick first step and a fine shooting touch from anywhere on the floor, the Tokyo Apache point guard is a threat to score two dozen points in every game — and in a hurry. And he's not afraid to do so.

Sometimes, in fact, the bj-league's shortest player makes the biggest impact.

After the Apache's fourth win over the Saitama Broncos in this young season on Nov. 25, backcourt mate Darin Satoshi Maki, who has competed with Aoki for playing time at the point, explained why it's a pleasure to be on the court at the same time as the diminutive Fukuoka native.

"I love to pass the ball to him," Maki declared, saying it's fun to watch his teammate operate in open space, penetrate to the basket and make things happen with the ball in his hands.

In the Apache's third game of the 2007-08 season, the 167-cm point guard put 30 points on the board and handed out 12 assists.

These numbers helped propel the Apache to a 103-84 victory over the Sendai 89ers.

Three games later, Aoki, who will play in the league's second All-Star Game on Saturday in Niigata, reached the 30-point plateau again, doing so in an 83-80 road win over the Osaka Evessa, the two-time reigning league champions.

Sense a trend here? Well, there is one, and this it it: The Apache, who are 9-5 entering the All-Star break, are 4-0 when Aoki scores 20 or more points.

He is averaging 15.1 points per game, up from 12.25 ppg from his breakthrough second year with the Apache.

During a recent interview, Aoki was asked to describe what he sensed has helped him become a better player.

"I don't know technically, but I think I've made some improvements mentally," Aoki said.

He added: "I can see the whole game well now. I can concentrate on the game even when it becomes a close one."

Aoki came off the bench in the season's first two games while recovering from a preseason ankle injury.

But it didn't take long to remind Apache coach Joe "Jellybean" Bryant — who was a scoring maestro in his playing days and the proud father of Kobe (one of the NBA's most prolific scorers of all time) — why he likes to write the words "Cohey Aoki" in the starting lineup.

The reason?

"(He's) become a consistent player," Bryant told The Japan Times late last season. "When you have a player like A.I. (Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson) that's just relentless and attacking, it is very difficult for teams to defend him."

Aoki, who turned 27 on Dec. 13, is a consistently great free-throw shooter. He led the league in foul-shooting accuracy in 2005-06, making 86.4 percent of his attempts (51 of 59). A year later, that figure improved to 93.3 percent (125 of 134), which was again No. 1. (In fact, when he misses a free throw, teammates often have been known to show surprise and tease him about it.)

Aoki is not among the league's top-three foul shooters this season — not yet, anyway. He is, however, close to the top, sinking 86.8 percent of his shots. Takamatsu Five Arrows All-Star sharpshooter Yu Okada tops the category with 91.3 percent.

At times, Aoki teams up with backup Jun Iwasa in the Apache backcourt. He has found a comfort zone in this combination.

"Attacking aggressively is my style, so I like (playing at shooting guard)," Aoki said. "When (Iwasa) plays, I can go aggressively to the rim. I don't only take shots from the outside. . .When I am at the No. 1 spot (point guard), I am always aware of the whole game."

Aoki, however, sees plenty of room for improvement.

"I still have an inconsistency and have a long way to go," Aoki said.

The rebuilt Apache, coming off a dismal 12-28 season a year ago, will look to make a strong push for the playoffs after the All-Star break. Newcomers Masashi Joho at guard and Nick Davis at center, formerly with the Evessa and Niigata Albirex BB, respectively, have helped Tokyo make a big turnaround.

But look for Aoki to play an integral role in the team's final 30 regular-season games. "We relied too much on John last year," Aoki admitted, speaking about John Humphrey, the team's and league's leading scorer the past two seasons.

"Now John's got patience, trusting other guys and letting them do what they can do. I think it's a good flow for us, and that's not something we had before."

They still have Aoki, though, a player with a cool Web site — www.cohey.net — and potential for greatness.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.



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