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Friday, May 30, 2008

Coach likes Oga's effort, fortitude


Staff writer

Yuko Oga has played a grand total of 19 minutes in her first three WNBA games.

News photo
Speedy performer: Phoenix Mercury guard Yuko Oga, a rookie in the WNBA, has impressed first-year coach Corey Gaines with her quickness and the ability to grasp the team's offense in a short period of time. AP PHOTO

But already she's given her new boss, Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines, a clear understanding of what she can accomplish as a rookie point guard for the WNBA's reigning champions.

"Her ability to come into the WNBA and play without fear despite the difference in style of play has impressed me greatly," Gaines told The Japan Times.

"Her speed allows the team to move faster. I'll use her in our rotation to give us a spark off the bench."

Under previous head coach Paul Westhead, the Mercury established their trademark run-and-gun offense. It's continued under Gaines, who played college ball under his legendary predecessor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The style of play is conducive to what Oga likes to do on the floor: run, run and run some more.

The reigning WJBL MVP, Oga led her JOMO Sunflowers team to four league titles since joining the team in 2001.

In 2007-08, she averaged 15.6 points (fourth in the league) and league-best numbers in assists (7.0) and steals (2.39).

In a recent conference call with reporters in Japan, Oga said she's working on building a stronger bond with her teammates and wants her hard-nosed mentality to lead to productivity on the court — getting good shots, earning trips to the charity stripe and giving her teammates a spark whenever she's on the court.

She is the second Japanese to play in the WNBA. Mikiko Hagiwara, who's now an assistant coach for the Japan women's national team, played for the Sacramento Monarchs and Phoenix Mercury in 1997 and '98, respectively.

It's an honor that she won't to take for granted. For sure, that mind-set will lead to more hours in the gym shooting jumpers or working on defensive mechanics.

"This is only the starting point," Oga told Kyodo News, "but I am very excited that I was able to attain my goal of joining the WNBA."

The weeks to come will test the 168-cm Oga's stamina and ability to cope with jet lag and the busy preparations for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Oga is Japan's starting point guard.

Leaving the WNBA for a few weeks, she will join the Japan national team for the final 12-team Beijing Olympics qualifying tournament in Spain.

Games will be held from June 9-15, featuring Senegal, Angola, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Spain, Belarus, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Fiji and Japan. Five teams will earn Olympic berths.

And then another goal returns for Oga: winning in Phoenix. The Mercury have stumbled to an 0-3 start this season, losing those three games by a combined 14 points.

After an eight-day layoff, the team returns to the court on Saturday against the Minnesota Lynx.

Despite Phoenix's disappointing start, Oga, who is called "Shin" by her coach, has made a quick transition to the league.

"She's been doing a great job thus far, despite the language barrier," said Gaines, a former JBL player for the now-defunct Japan Energy team. "In terms of basketball language, she speaks fluently."

One snippet of her fine-tuned hoop aptitude has already become her signature move in the WNBA.

With the ball in her hands, the 25-year-old takes a "pull-up (jumper) from the free-throw line on the fast break," Gaines noted.

Indeed, Oga's main focus has been on getting acclimated to her new role as a backcourt reserve on a team that features Diana Taurasi, a superstar guard in the women's game since her days at UConn.

But that doesn't mean Gaines, Taurasi and the other Mercury teammates haven't enjoyed getting used to another side of Oga's personality.

"Shin is a joker, a Japanese jester," Gaines observed.

Noah takes deal

GAINESVILLE , Fla. (AP) Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah accepted a deferred prosecution agreement Wednesday in his marijuana possession case, resulting in six months of probation and a $200 fine.

The son of former French Open champion Yannick Noah was charged with possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and for having an open container of alcohol early Sunday in downtown Gainesville. As a first-time offender, he was eligible for the deferred prosecution agreement, the State Attorney's Office said.



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