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Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

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Floor leader: Tokyo Apache guard Byron Eaton has scored 25 or more points in three of the last four contests, helping his club win four straight entering this weekend's series against the host Ryukyu Golden Kings. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Hill's strategic use of Eaton paying off


Staff writer

For Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill, the decision to move point guard Byron Eaton to a reserve role may turn out to be the smartest move he'll make this season.

Since Eaton, a hard-nosed floor leader, was named a backup before the Jan. 27 game against the Rizing Fukuoka, guards Jumpei Nakama, Cohey Aoki and Kensuke Tanaka have formed a steady three-guard starting lineup and given the team a strong presence in a speedy lineup.

The Apache (18-10 overall) are 6-1 in those last seven games, including a series sweep over the Western Conference-leading Osaka Evessa on Tuesday and Wednesday at Yoyogi National Gym No. 2.

Eaton, an active defender, has 20 steals in that span, while playing more than 30 minutes in only one contest (30:56 on Wednesday). In the other six games, he played between 24 and 30 minutes.

He's also averaging 20.3 points, including 25 on Tuesday and 32 in the series finale against the Evessa, since switching to the role of super substitute. In addition, he entered Wednesday's game as the team's leading scorer (16.2 points per game).

Indeed, Eaton, a former Oklahoma State player, has found ways to take over the game on his own, with clutch 3-pointers and driving layups, timely steals and crisp passes to his teammates.

"I think sometimes we forget it's a long game and Byron is a very, very competitive tough, mentally tough, player," Hill said. "It's great to be able to bring him off the bench. He doesn't care if he starts or comes off the bench, so to be able to bring him off the bench is a real plus for me and honestly the team."

There's been less of an adjustment to start games than some might imagine, particularly because Tanaka's energetic style has worked well with veteran backcourt mates Aoki and Nakama.

"Those three Japanese players have really gotten better and they create a good pace for us to start the game," Hill said.

Together, Eaton and Hill have discovered a way to conserve energy until the fourth quarter. Exhibit A: On Tuesday, Eaton made five fourth-quarter steals.

"Not playing him in the first five or six minutes of the game saves some of that energy in case you need it in the fourth quarter," the coach said.

Here's how Hill summed up the burly Eaton's role on offense: "He's very difficult to guard."

"He plays basketball like he played football," Hill said of Eaton. "He has this uncanny ability to drive into the lane, guys will step up to make charges and he will somehow slither by them like he's carrying a football, like he's cutting."

Hill's move was similar to one made by former Apache coach Joe Bryant in the 2008-09 when he opted to make Aoki, a five time All-Star, the team's sixth man (he came off the bench in 41 of 51 games that season). It paid off as the club reached the bj-league title game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

"But yet he's able to do it with his dribble, and sometimes he carries it a little bit, but he gets by people and his balance is so good and then he searches for contact. He comes off that last bounce when he gets to the rim and he gets in people's chests and he gets the calls.

"He's one of those guys if there's a loose ball and Byron's in the vicinity, he gets it. He gets the loose balls. So that's why you want him on the floor late in the game," Hill added.

Trying times in Shiga: Shiga's Takatoshi Ishibashi, who was fired on Tuesday, became the second bj-league coach to lose his job this season. The Lakestars had lost five straight games before Ishibashi was handed his pink slip.

Toyama's Kohei Eto was dismissed on Feb. 2, when his team had an 8-18 record, and replaced by ex-Niigata assistant Kazuaki Shimoji.

So why was Ishibashi fired by the Lakestars despite the team's 19-15 record and a strong chance of reaching the Final Four in May?

A league insider offered his thoughts on the issue in an interview with The Japan Times on Tuesday.

"Five losses in a row seem to be the trigger. (All-Star) Mikey (Marshall) is still out for another couple of weeks, with the Tokyo games (on March 5-6) as the goal for his return.

"I've heard from people that he doesn't always know how to use players, and doesn't make great game decisions, but everyone complains about that stuff," the source said.

Shiga general manager/CEO Shinsuke Sakai, and others in similar positions of power in this young league, have a reputation for expecting results immediately without differentiating between short-term and long-term accomplishments.

"The biggest reason, of course, is that Sakai-san is impatient and wants his own way all the time, even though he knows less than zero about basketball," the source said.

"Internal problems are gathering a group of 'stars' without regard to how that would get along or play together. (Masashi) Joho and Yu Okada see each other as rivals more than teammates."

"The timing was rather unfortunate as Toyama's planning a big deal this weekend (because of Big Bashi's now-canceled return to Toyama) with special game sponsors, etc.," the source said, referring ahead to the Lakestars-Grouses series on Saturday and Sunday.

"(Takamichi) Fujiwara sees Joho as a rival for the No. 1 Japanese player on the team.

"I would have gone with a lineup of Joho and Yu Okada and Mikey right from the beginning. Who needs a point guard with those three?"

Around the league: Former ozeki Konishiki sat courtside for Tuesday's Apache-Evessa game. In a brief pre-game interview, he said it was the first basketball game he had attended in several years, as well as his first bj-league game.

Several years ago, Konishiki said he went to Panasonic Trians games to watch one of his close friends play. The Hawaiian-born Konishiki presented the honorary game ball. He wore a black baseball cap and sunglasses, jeans and a T-shirt. . . . Hamamatsu standout Jeffrey Parmer was profiled in his hometown newspaper, the Niagara (N.Y.) Gazette on Sunday. . . .

Back in action: After missing three weeks due to a hamstring injury, Osaka power forward Lynn Washington played his first game since the All-Star break on Tuesday. He was limited to 22 minutes, 16 seconds of court time, but made his presence felt as usual.

"Lynn Washington is a great player in this league. We couldn't guard him," Hill said Tuesday. "He's a guy whose first rotation he played OK, but his second rotation — he's been out for a while — but I thought he played much, much better and he was a man among not boys but he's a man. He plays like a man.

Hill added: "You have to be prepared to guard that. He gets away with some things that guys that have been MVPs of leagues normally get away with.

Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell credited Washington for "some nice plays" in the third quarter to help his team take the lead on Tuesday, but acknowledged that the veteran forward will need a few games to improve his physical conditioning after the long layoff.

"We've got to get that chemistry back and his timing back," said Blackwell, whose team now has the same record (21-13) as the rival Ryukyu Golden Kings, but currently holds the tie breaker (overall point differential: plus 5.3 to plus 2.1 based on games through Wednesday.).

Ineptitude at the JBA: It's no surprised that the latest plan for the JBL/bj-league merger in 2013 — a 36-team league — was flatly rejected by the Japan Basketball Association last week. After all, the plan fails to turn the page and earnestly usher in a new era of legitimate pro ball that doesn't include semi-pro, amateur or corporate teams from the get-go.

Here's Akita Northern Happinets coach Bob Pierce's thought-provoking analysis of the situation:

"The rejected blueprint included a plan to have pro and amateur teams at the start, with all teams being required to become pro clubs in two years," he said.

"Let's see, back in 2000-2001 the JBL formed the Pre-Super League with eight teams, which was supposed to be the intermediary step between the 12-team JBL and the eventual professional Super League. But when it became the Super League in 2001-2002 it was still the same eight-team semi-professional company-team league that the JBL had been, only with eight teams instead of 12.

"Then after about six seasons an entire year was spent promoting the New League that finally would make the jump from amateur to professional league. And after that entire of year of planning and the end of the Super League the following season (2007-08) brought us the JBL with the same eight-team semi-professional company-team league only now with the old JBL name!

"It's been 10 years since the Pre-Super League was going to usher in the new era of professional basketball, and now the best they can is repeat the same words that have failed to make any real changes over the last decade.

Pierce's final analysis of the situation can be summed up in two words: "Insane indeed."

Building blocks: Agent Toshinori Koga of Five-Star Management Co., Ltd., who represents Tokyo's Michael Chappell, Akita's Dokun Akingbade and other players, believes Japan's chances of having sustained success in basketball will require the JBA to have a more international focus. The mind-numbing impasse between the JBL and bj-league only exacerbates the problem, he added.

"If this country has a strong league and national team, that means it can make more money and they can hire referees under more good salary conditions," Koga said. "When they can get good payments, they can get real professional referee jobs."

Koga wants the JBA to challenge its top-tier players to gain experience playing overseas.

"I feel that the JBA should think more about younger player development program/project is most important for this country basketball's future," he said. "If Takeuchi twins (JBL stars Kosuke and Joji) or (Link Tochigi Brex scoring ace Takuya) Kawamura, who are top JBL players, had played with good U.S. schools, no question, they are better players at this moment. Especially, big men who play the 4 and the 5 should go out of this country and (experience) hardworking (situations) for basketball and regular personal life in another country."

"Then they can develop play and be mentally stronger and they bring another culture to the Japan national team. That is more quickest way for development of Japanese basketball."

A fan's perspective: Tommie McGowan, who resides in Okinawa, has been a fervent supporter of the Golden Kings since the team's inaugural season. He's become one of the team's most visibly knowledgeable fans via interaction with players and league supporters.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, he was asked to select his five favorite players in league history based solely on his enjoyment of watching them play and a second Best Five team using the same criteria.

McGowan offered his insights via e-mail.

"The top 5 guys I have enjoyed watching over the years are:

"1. Anthony McHenry — (Ryukyu).

It starts before the game when he is being introduced (at home games), he always goes over to the visiting team's bench to shake hands with their coach. Once he starts playing, the way he drives to the basket is really smooth. He gets to the basket using a variety of spin moves and crossovers. One of the best at his position in the league at doing that.

"2. Jeff Newton — (Ryukyu).

Very quiet guy and lets his on-court playing ability do all his talking. Has a very high arc and smooth shot that looks so good when he releases it. Hard to defend because of his quickness and release point of the ball.

"3. Masashi Joho — (Shiga).

One of the few Japanese ballplayers that I like to watch handle the ball. Very knowledgeable of the game, where his team-mates are located on the floor and a good outside shooter.

"4. Tsubasa Yonamine — (Ryukyu).

One of the best 'floor generals' in the league. Controls the team very well when he is on the court and he is not afraid to drive in on larger players. Always plays hard and when he is taken out of the game, shows respect for the game/court by bowing once he steps off the court.

"5. Cohey Aoki (Tokyo).

He makes up for his size with his intensity. Is not afraid to have a larger American player guard him. Changes his game to adapt to that player.

Don't see him trying to force shots, controls his team when he is out there, plays hard every minute he is on the court. I like to call him the Yonamine of the East! Great shooter!"

McGowan's second Best Five — favorite players — follows:

"1. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — (Kyoto).

Obvious reasons: a man playing at his level, at his age is just amazing. Mr. Clutch, sweetest/quickest shot release in the league, from any position on the floor. Definitely knows the game.

"2. Lynn Washington — (Osaka).

Plays hard when he is on the court. a threat to attack the basket or shoot it from the outside and is good at both of them.

"3. David Palmer — (Ryukyu).

Hated him to have the ball when he was playing against us for Osaka. Love to have him with the ball now. Definitely a clutch shooter and good passer.

"4. Bobby Nash — (Saitama).

His attitude for the game and for the fans is great. Plays hard when he is in, goes after loose balls, attacks the basket.

"5. Carlos Dixon/Dillion Sneed — (Ryukyu).

Even though it is their first season here in bj-league and they play with my Kings, I have developed a liking towards them. Carlos' interaction with the fans is great. His hustle on the court, his shooting and attacking the basket is quickly becoming fun to watch.

"Sneed just came into the league a few weeks ago and is paying BIG dividends for us. He is not afraid to 'take it right at the bigger guys' and plays hard when he is out there. I am glad that we got him on our team."

He added: "I know a lot of my favorites are on our team but with Jeff, Palmer and Yonamine . . . I liked them when they were with their previous teams. Glad we got them on ours now."

Upcoming games: All 16 teams are in action this weekend, with the following series on the docket: Sendai vs. Kyoto, Niigata vs. Saitama, Toyama vs. Shiga, Hamamatsu vs. Miyazaki, Osaka vs. Akita, Fukuoka vs. Takamatsu, Oita vs. Shimane and Ryukyu vs. Tokyo.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an e-mail to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp



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