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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE

Sun hopes to help Phoenix rise in Eastern Conference


Staff writer

The bj-league begins the Sun Ming Ming era on Saturday.

News photo
Steady presence: Point guard Hikaru Kusaka has been a consistent floor leader for the Sendai 89ers in the past three seasons and helped the club post a team-record 29 victories last season. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

How long it lasts is uncertain, but this much is clear: The 236-cm Chinese center will be a major attraction around Japan this season.

Sun is, after all, taller than any player in NBA history.

Sun plays for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, who begin their first season as a bj-league expansion team when they play host to the Sendai 89ers on Saturday. Tipoff time is 2 p.m.

Sun's team, formerly known as OSG Phoenix, defected from the JBL after the 2007-08 season.

Veteran coach Kazuo Nakamura, 67, will guide the team during its transition from the old-school JBL to the fourth-year bj-league.

An athletic, well-balanced roster will be at his disposal. Joining Sun in the frontcourt are power forward Andy Ellis, who scored 25.1 points per game for Oita in 2007-08, fellow 20-point scorer Josh Peppers and forward Adam Zahn.

Guard Masahiro Oguchi has been a Phoenix player for nine seasons, while center Seiichiro Kage has eight years in the program, including time on the junior team. That experience should help the new Phoenix players get acclimated to Nakamura's system.

In early October, the Phoenix staged a three-game exhibition series with Russian club Dynamo Moscow. Nakamura's team won the first game, 76-69, a positive sign in the preseason.

Bottom line: The Phoenix have a deep, talented roster. There's still one big question: Will they quickly and successfully adapt to the bj-league's style of play?

Sendai 89ers

Coach Honoo Hamaguchi's team was one of the league's top success stories last season, emerging as the East's top regular-season team and posting a 29-15 record.

Led by do-it-all forward Bobby St. Preux, the 89ers will look to remain the East's top team.

Forward Rashad Tucker, who previously played in the Australian League, and fellow frontcourt newcomers Joe Barber (Swiss League) and Chris Holm (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) infuse a new spark for 89ers mainstays Hikaru Kusaka and Kenichi Takahashi in the backcourt.

Kusaka's continued maturation as the team's floor leader will also be a key for the club. Also, keep an eye on rookie point guard Takehiko Shimura, who is the league's shortest player at 160 cm.

Bottom line: It's too early to say how steady forward Ryan Blackwell's offseason departure will affect the team. His on-court presence was similar to a coach's role on the bench.

Niigata Albirex BB

For three seasons, coach Masaya Hirose has taken the club to the postseason.

To do so again, newcomers Ho Dongkyu (forward), Akitomo Takeno (point guard), Brett Gravitt (shooting guard), Dokun Akingbade (power forward/center), Antonio Burks (forward), Ryosuke Mizumachi (guard) and Calvin Chitwood (power forward) will need to assimilate themselves into the mix at a rapid pace.

Gravitt, Burks and Akingbade, who attended South Alabama, Stephen F. Austin and George Washington universities, respectively, played for the Vermont Frost Heaves of the ABA last season. That team joined the Premier Basketball League for the 2008-09 season.

Hirose's club brought back only four players — point guards Makoto Hasegawa and Takato Saito (he played 71 minutes in 2007-08), shooting guard Naoto Kosuge and forward Yuichi Ikeda — from a squad that went 26-18 last season.

Bottom line: The Albirex appear to be in a rebuilding mode this season, but a playoff berth isn't an impossibility.

Saitama Broncos

Second-year coach David Benoit made a solid transition from player to coach last season. The ex-NBA forward now looks to turn the Broncos, coming off a 21-23 season, into a playoff team.

Power forward Gordon James, arguably the team's most consistent player the past two seasons, is now with the Takamatsu Five Arrows. He's been replaced in the frontcourt by Reggie Warren, who played a similar role for the Five Arrows. Warren led the league with 82 dunks and nearly doubled his scoring output (21.5 ppg) in 2007-08 from the previous year.

Shooting guard Steven Horne also departed Takamatsu after a 12.1-ppg season.

Other newcomers include ex-Albirex forward Daiki Terashita and forwards Darryl Hepburn, and Antoine Broxsie, a well-traveled veteran whose previous stops include Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus.

Forward Kazuhiro Shoji, one of the league's most dependable 3-point shooters, and frontcourt mate Takeshi Ando are back for their fourth seasons in a Saitama uniform.

Bottom line: Saitama's consistency from game to game was problematic a season ago. It will need to have a different trademark in 2008-09 to make the playoffs.

Tokyo Apache

Coach Joe Bryant guided the Apache to the title game last May. The team came up short in its goal to win the championship, but remains a strong contender.

Center Nick Davis, an MVP-caliber player for three straight seasons, returns for his second year in Tokyo. He's joined in the frontcourt by newcomer Julius Ashby, a major force for the Takamatsu Five Arrows two seasons ago.

Guards Cohey Aoki, Jun Iwasa, Masashi Joho, Darin Satoshi Maki and versatile Jumpei Nakama and John Humphrey are experienced practitioners of Bryant's style of play.

Bottom line: Tokyo appears capable of making another championship run this season.

Toyama Grouses

The team has had a difficult first two seasons in the bj-league, including a 7-37 record in 2007-08. Now coach Masato Fukushima looks to turn the page and use the experience of the past two seasons to mold a winner in Toyama.

Fukushima will rely on Masayuki Kabaya, who led the bj-league's Japanese players in minutes played (1,517), to continue his rise to prominence as a perimeter force. He scored 14.3 ppg last season.

Senegalese center Babacar Camara, a Cal State Fullerton product, brings his 211-cm frame to the middle after playing in the Saudi Arabian League. Forward Terrence Woodyard joined the Grouses after a stint for the Leicester Riders in England.

All-Star forward Rodney Webb left Niigata after one season and took his knowledge of the rugged Eastern Conference to Toyama.

Haruhito Shishito, a former Evessa backup, brings needed experience to point guard.

Bottom line: The Grouses have a lot to prove this season. No one wants to be known as a perennial loser.



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