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Friday, Sep. 30, 2011


Aoki fitting in nicely with his new Evessa teammates

Staff writer

For a brief moment, forget about the playbook and toss the scouting report in the metaphorical recycle bin. Realize that all teams could build something special if they had the same fundamental tools at their disposal.

News photo
New kid on the block: Cohey Aoki, who starred for the Tokyo Apache for six seasons, is already having an impact for his new team, the Osaka Evessa. HIROKO IWASA PHOTO

With that in mind, here's the most profound statement this reporter has heard about the bj-league since 2006:

"Cohey is by far the best shooter in the bj-league, and that's for Americans and Japanese players."

Those words were spoken by Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington minutes after Monday's preseason news conference in Shibuya. He was, of course, referring to Cohey Aoki, the only five-time All-Star in league history. Aoki was the Evessa's big-name offseason acquisition due to the Tokyo Apache's disappearance, meaning Aoki needed a new team to play for.

Washington had played against Aoki during the league's first six seasons, but never on the same team in a normal game. That occurred on Friday, when the Evessa defeated the Kyoto Hannaryz 102-87.

Aoki had eight points in his Osaka debut, while two-time MVP Washington added seven points and seven rebounds in 19 efficient minutes.

Returning star Wayne Arnold, who plays for the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, is No. 2 on Washington's list of top bj-league shooters.

"It just feels good to be able to pass out of a double team to a Japanese player who's going to make an open jump shot," Washington said of Aoki. "Pure and point blank, that's what it is, and it's great to be able to set a ball screen for somebody who actually knows when they should shoot it or pass. And that's Cohey."

Has Aoki quickly adjusted to second-year coach Ryan Blackwell's offense?

"Yeah, it's easy, too, because Ryan puts all the emphasis on us," Washington said.

In his Hannaryz debut, former NBA center Lance Allred had 14 points. Forward Rick Rickert led Kyoto with 17 points and Lee Cummard grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds.

Sunao Murakami also poured in 14 points for new coach Honoo Hamaguchi's club.

Blackwell, who guided the Evessa to the Final Four in his first season at the helm, considered his team's performance a good starting point for this season.

"I was happy about our play overall," Blackwell said. "Offensively, we have more than enough talent and athleticism. We scored 102 points in our first game, the team shared the ball and executed well on offense."

He rattled off a few statistics to prove his point: 50 percent shooting from the field, 53 percent on 3-points and 17 assists.

Newcomer Lavell Payne, a University of Central Florida product (Shiga standout Josh Peppers' alma mater), had 23 points in 18 minutes in his first game in Japan.

Satoshi Takeda, who played for Osaka in 2005-06, but spent the past five seasons with the Takamatsu Five Arrows, had a strong game as well, Blackwell said.

Blackwell pointed out that Aoki provided a stabilizing presence on the court, enabling Osaka's other players to focus on their individual assignments.

"Cohey was steady as usual," Blackwell said. "He only took a couple of shots but he made a lot of good plays for his teammates."

Preseason media event: Eighteen player representatives from the 19 teams, excluding the Ryukyu Golden Kings, who are competing in this week's ABA (Asia Basketball Association) Marco Polo Championship, a four-team event, in Guangzhou, China, attended Monday's press function in Shibuya.

Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and other league officials made comments about the league's future plans — expansion, youth basketball projects, etc. — during the afternoon event.

(On Wednesday, Ryukyu beat Taiwan Beer 76-69. A day earlier, the Dongguan Leopards topped the Golden Kings 85-73.)

Assessing the current state of the bj-league, Kawachi said: "We, the bj-league, are entering our seventh year this year and we have been able to do so because of the enthusiastic support by the boosters and the media. We are opening the 2011-12 season on Oct. 8 with 19 teams, adding the new teams of Iwate, Nagano, Chiba and Yokohama.

"Unfortunately, the Tokyo team has withdrawn from the season with the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake. However, Saitama and Sendai, both of which were forced to stop play after the disaster, will be able to compete this year and we are pleased about it."

He added: "Next year, we will add a team in Aomori, which means we add another company in the Tohoku region. Hopefully, we can give some smiles and courage to the people up there through basketball."

In a lighthearted portion of the event, players from the 10 Eastern Conference teams displayed their top four choices in order of finish for the Western Conference clubs on white poster board. Eight West players did the same thing for their Eastern Conference counterparts. Players then made comments to explain their picks.

One player spelled Shimane without an "i," drawing laughter in the room.

Saitama Broncos and former NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield, for instance, held up his picks: Osaka, Ryukyu, Shimane and Shiga. Akita Northern Happinets guard Makoto Hasegawa did the same, his paper showing these choices: Ryukyu, Osaka, Shiga and Shimane.

In fact, all 10 East players except Satterfield listed Ryukyu as their top choice. Satterfield, who played for the Evessa after the Broncos' season ended following the March 11 earthquake, said Osaka is a talented team and Blackwell is a good coach.

Curiously enough, Washington jotted down Saitama, Hamamatsu, Niigata and Sendai. He then admitted he forgot about Akita, which he believes will be a strong contender in the East under Nakamura. But Washington added that the return of Satterfield to Saitama — "the best guard to ever grace us with his presence in the history of the bj-league" — puts that team in the conversation for a possible first-ever playoff appearance.

Shimane Susanoo Magic forward and three-time scoring champion Michael Parker, who made the offseason move from the Rizing Fukuoka, settled for these four picks: Hamamatsu, Niigata, Saitama and Sendai. All four teams begin this season with new head coaches, a fact Parker and the other players did not point out in detailed analysis.

In fact, none of the East's current 10 head coaches had the same position with the same team at this time last season. (Grouses sideline supervisor Kazuaki Shimoji took over as head man in February after Kohei Eto was fired; he's now the dean of coaches in terms of seniority with his current squad, and he's been in charge for a grand total of 18 regular-season games.)

Meanwhile, Phoenix guard Kenya Tomori embraces the challenge that lies ahead.

We have achieved consecutive championships and think every team is going to challenge us," Tomori said. "But we Phoenix have always played as a challenger and it won't change. We would like to show our Phoenix basketball under our new head coach Kawai."

Hasegawa, the Happinets' 40-year-old veteran, probably views things a bit differently than up-and-coming players nearly half his age, knowing he is in the twilight to his career. He said, "As a team, we are looking at making the Final Four, advancing through the early rounds. And individually, I am 40, so I don't think I have much opportunity to play fully, but I would like to avoid injuries as much as possible and if I can do that, I think I can contribute to the team."

Meaningful games: In Okinawa City, the Ryukyu Golden Kings swept a pair of preseason games against the Phoenix last Saturday and Sunday, winning 96-73 and 76-72.

Those games, of course, featured the same teams that squared off in the championship contest last May at Ariake Colosseum, when Hamamatsu picked up its second straight title.

The Phoenix, playing under new coach Ryuji Kawai, were back in action on Thursday playing host to the KCC Egis in the 2011 bj-league/KBL championship series, featuring the reigning champions of the two leagues. The teams meet again on Sunday in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture. Tipoff is 12:10 p.m. That game will be broadcast by BS Fuji and BJTV.

New Happinet: Shooting guard Kenny Bernard Taylor finalized a deal this week to play for the Akita Northern Happinets.

The 192-cm Taylor brings NBA Development League experience to Akita. He's also played in Croatia, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Bosnia and Venezuela, according to the team's press release.

Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura said Taylor's shooting ability is a good match for the team's style of play.

Making a statement: Two members of grassroots group Keep Tokyo Pro-Basketball Team, organized online at http://keep-tokyoprobasket.com, presented signed several hundred signatures in a petition to Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi on Monday. Call it a glorified photo opportunity, if you will, but the group wants to remain in the public eye, sources have told The Japan Times, and keep pressure on the league to find a way for the Apache or a new Tokyo-based franchise to re-enter the league in 2012-13.

Editor's note: Look for expanded preview coverage in The Japan Times and online before the regular season tips off on Oct. 8, including an exclusive interview with Shimane forward Michael Parker.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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

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