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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

Mercury coach thinks Oga has potential

Staff writer

After winning the WNBA title last season, the Phoenix Mercury disappointed their fans by failing to make the playoffs in this recently concluded season. The Mercury finished the 2008 season with a 16-18 record and tied the Minnesota Lynx for the worst record in the seven-team Western Conference.

News photo
Solid debut: Phoenix Mercury point guard Yuko Oga, who helped the JOMO Sunflowers win four WJBL titles, made a strong impression as a reserve guard in her rookie season in the WNBA. The Mercury failed to advance to the playoffs after winning the title last season. AP PHOTO

Rookie point guard Yuko Oga, however, gave the fans and Mercury coach Corey Gaines plenty of reasons to smile.


Oga's infectious enthusiasm, talent and potential to be a long-term success story in the WNBA are the primary reasons.

"Yuko is a player who can and, I believe, will become a great WNBA player once she gets a hold of the consistency of coming in and being a force on the court," Gaines told The Japan Times.

Oga, who turns 26 in October, appeared in 23 games for the Mercury. She averaged 7.9 minutes per appearance, scoring 2.4 points and dishing out 0.6 assists.

"She makes the team play up-tempo, she has a lot of tenacity and can get where she wants to get on the court," Gaines said.

Those qualities made her a star during her days with the JOMO Sunflowers of the WJBL, playing a prominent role in the team's success (four league titles) since she joined the team in 2001.

The Yamagata Prefecture native was also named the league's regular-season MVP in the 2007-08 season after posting averages of 15.6 points, 7.0 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

Oga played for Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and was a member of this summer's national team, which was unable to qualify for the Beijing Games.

In his discussions with other opposing coaches and players and media members who cover the league on a regular basis, a recurring theme popped into conversations about Oga. "They were commenting on how fast she was," Gaines said.

He echoed that insight in an August story in The Arizona Republic.

"She has an energy level . . . an excitement," he said. "She goes hard every time. She has that mentality of, 'Go, go, go.' That's what we need."

It has been a decade since sharpshooter Mikiko Hagiwara, a former Mercury and Sacramento Monarchs player, became the first Japanese in the WNBA. Oga still realizes the significance of what Hagiwara did for her and this generation of Japanese women's players.

"Thank you very much to her," Oga said of Hagiwara in The Arizona Republic article. "She opened the road for Japan to go to WNBA. I make more of that road. Now, Japanese players have dreams to go to the U.S."

For instance, guard Asumi Nakayama of Utah Valley State and University of Evansville (Ind.) guard Ayako Nakane have seen their dreams become reality, and have put themselves in position to have a shot at playing professionally in the United States someday.

Next season, the Mercury will benefit from the experience Oga gained as a rookie. But her full transition to American-style basketball won't be a one-year project.

"I would say that she's going to need time to fully understand the playbook," Gaines said. "It's difficult given the different natures of the game played here in the U.S. and Japan and other places overseas."

And that's why Gaines, who played in the JBL, has consistently challenged Oga to become a more aggressive basketball player. He said attacking the basket is something she needs to get better at in order to become a more potent offensive weapon for Phoenix.

Despite her background as a point guard, Oga has also impressed the Mercury coaching staff with her ability to play at the off-guard position.

"It's amazing what a good scorer she is when she plays that position," Gaines noted.

One offensive play in particular stands out in Gaines' mind when he reflected on Oga's rookie season.

"There was a time when she jumped from the free-throw line and put up a finger-roll shot, which she made," the coach recalled. "She was called for an offensive foul, which I think was a bad call, but she made the shot, which was amazing."

In Gaines' point of view, Oga also showed a remarkable ability to quickly adapt to her new surroundings, interacting with her teammates on the court and socializing with them away from the arena. "Oh yes," he stated, "she definitely flourished in that area, which is important in the WNBA."

It wasn't easy, Oga admitted, to always understand what was being said in English. She's grateful to have patient, helpful teammates.

"Talking is fast, and hearing it is hard," Oga told The Arizona Republic, explaining the difficult she's faced with English. "My Phoenix Mercury teammates are so sweet. They communicate a little slowly and make it easier. Everyone is so nice. They are great teammates."

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