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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE

Western Conference wide open after Evessa lose three key players


Staff writer

Until proven otherwise, the Osaka Evessa are the elite team in the Western Conference and the bj-league as a whole.

News photo
Rising star: Shooting guard Yu Okada is one the top scoring options for the Takamatsu Five Arrows. He's among the bj-league's top 3-point shooters and has helped the team reach postseason play in each of its two seasons. TAKAMATSU FIVE ARROWS PHOTO

The Evessa returned to regular-season competition last weekend, sweeping a pair of games against the expansion Shiga Lakestars on the road.

Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi's team, winners of three straight titles, was previewed thoroughly in last weekend's newspaper, as well as some Web-only stories. But here's a quick rundown on the 2008-09 Evessa squad:

The team won a league-best 31 games last season. The vocal leader of the squad is two-time MVP Lynn Washington, a power forward out of Indiana University. Sharpshooter Naoto Nakamura and gritty small forward Kazuya Hatano are capable performers as well.

The Evessa's newcomers include small forward Nick DeWitz, formerly of the Sendai 89ers); center Eric Walton, who gave the Ryukyu Golden Kings 42 games of service a year ago; point guard Nile Murry, who returned to the bj-league this season after a year in Hungary; and Murry's ex-Toyama Grouses teammate Takanori Goya, a point guard who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft.

Gone from last year's championship squad are Matt Lottich, who's now playing in Germany, and Mikey Marshall, who has moved on to the Kuwait League. Center Jeff Newton, the league's top shot-blocker, is now suiting up for the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Here's a look at each of the other five teams in the West:

Takamatsu Five Arrows

Coach Motofumi Aoki's club went 30-14 in its second season, a year after reaching the title game. The Five Arrows' season ended on their home court, where they lost the wild-card game to the Rizing Fukuoka.

Point guard Rasheed Sparks returns for his third season at point guard. In 2007-08, he was third in the league in assists (4.9 per game), collected 81 steals and was always within reach of a triple-double when the game began.

Perimeter marksman Yu Okada drained 115 3-pointers in Year 2, taking 20 less attempts than his rookie campaign and making 40.9 percent of them. His assist total increased to 112 from 84 in that span. Okada's continued emergence as a playmaker is a key for Takamatsu.

Other key contributions are expected from center George Leach, guards Satoshi Takeda and Hiroyuki Kikuchi and forward Isaac Sojourner.

Veteran forward Matt Garrison, a steady scorer for the Niigata Albirex BB since the league began, joined Aoki's club in the offseason. He averaged 15.8 points per game in his final Albirex season.

Fellow newcomer Gordon James brings a blue collar work ethic to Shikoku after grabbing a pair of rebound titles during his two-year stint with the Saitama Broncos.

Bottom line: Aoki's club has been a steady regular-season winner for two years. Can it take the next big step in the postseason?

Ryukyu Golden Kings

Coach Dai Oketani's club opened the season with a pair of home victories against the Rizing Fukuoka last weekend.

This was the most revealing stat of the opener: The Golden Kings had 11 dunks to the Rizing's zero. It's an instant reminder that Newton and former Oita HeatDevils center Chris Ayer will provide a big presence in the paint.

Forward Anthony McHenry scored 43 total points in the aforementioned victories, making a super debut in the process.

Guards Kenya Tomori, Shigeyuki Kinjo and Naoto Takushi endured a 10-34 rookie campaign in the league, but gained a valuable year of experience as well.

Takushi was The Japan Times' Rookie of the Year, leading his club in scoring and steals and dishing out a league-best 5.8 assists.

Veteran forward Taketo Aoki is now on his third bj-league team. He previously suited up for the Tokyo Apache and Oita HeatDevils. Yoshiki Yamashiro and Bryan Simpson return to the frontcourt.

Bottom line: It's unclear if first-year coach Oketani can quickly transform Ryukyu into a title contender, but the team should have a shot at one of the four playoff spots with Newton in the lineup.

Shiga Lakestars

The first-year team gave its fans plenty to get excited about in a hard-fought, 81-78 season-opening loss to the Evessa on Oct. 11. Coach Robert Pierce said as much after the game.

The Lakestars will rely on veteran Takamichi Fujiwara, an ex-Albirex playmaker, to run the show at the point. Ex-Evessa backups Hirotaka Sato, a center, and Haruyuki Ishibashi, a point guard, will be counted on to provide veteran leadership for the team's younger Japanese players, including forward Yosuke Machida, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft.

In the frontcourt, Americans Brayden Billbe (28 points, 15 rebounds in the opener), Ryan Rourke and Ray Schafer will need to provide major production.

Shooting guard Bobby Nash, a former Hawaii standout, will be counted on for similar results from the perimeter.

Bottom line: The Lakestars face an uphill battle to make the playoffs, but can draw inspiration from the Five Arrows' expansion season.

Rizing Fukuoka

Globe-trotting coach John Neumann settled into his new job in Kyushu last season and molded the Rizing into a hot team at just the right time — for the stretch run.

Forward Michael Parker is the No. 1 scoring option, as well as the league's top returning player in steals (2.6 per game). Josh Peppers and Michael Gardener have left Fukuoka and joined the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix as free agents. Their scoring ability — they often combined for more than 40 points per game last season — will be missed.

Neumann will rely on shooting guard Michael Sturns to help pick up the slack.

Among the team's Japanese players, starting point guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura and ex-Oita HeatDevil Kohei Mitomo are the most proven scorers. And when he returns from rehabbing his knee, Jun Nakanishi will add offensive punch to the backcourt.

Bottom line: Neumann's squad has added many new pieces to the puzzle. Now he wants to find the proper mix to create mayhem on defense and raise the tempo on offense.

Oita HeatDevils

Oita has made major changes since posting a 19-25 record last season.

Ex-assistant coach and backup forward Tadaharu Ogawa is the new head coach, replacing Oketani. In addition, Ellis has taken his league-best 25.1 ppg to the Phoenix.

The Japanese mainstays in the backcourt, Yukinori Suzuki and Tsubasa Yonamine, however, remain. And Kimiake Sato joined the club after three years in Niigata.

Four new imports — guard Dakarai Wallace and forwards David Reichel, Jeffrey Price and James Wilkinson — will be expected to make immediate contributions.

Bottom line: This is a fresh start for Oita after a subpar season. But will the changes translate into success?



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