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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008

HOOP SCOOP

Newton fired up to play in Okinawa


His bj-league resume is as impressive as anyone's in the circuit's brief history. Three championship seasons are his crowning achievement — so far.

Ed Odeven

He's still only 27 years old.

Jeff Newton, a former Osaka Evessa star, begins a new chapter in his professional basketball career on Saturday when his new team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, begins its second season in the bj-league.

In Ryukyu's season opener at Ginowan City Gym in Okinawa Prefecture, the Rizing Fukuoka visit the island for two games. Saturday's tilt tips off at 7 p.m., and Sunday's contest begins at 6.

Newton and his Golden Kings teammates are looking to rebound from last season's 10-34 record as an expansion club and put a winning product on the court for Year 2.

"Everybody's working hard, everybody's on the same page," Newton said by telephone from Okinawa on Thursday evening. "So hopefully when we get into the game it will translate into wins.

Dai Oketani is the team's head coach this season, replacing Hernando Planells, who was fired after Ryukyu's inaugural season.

Newton, who played on Indiana University's 2002 Final Four squad, said he's made a smooth transition to his new team and quickly developed a solid rapport with his new coach.

"I'm always comfortable," Newton told me.

News photo
Inside strength: Center Jeff Newton, seen putting up a shot against the Tokyo Apache in a November 2006 game, helped the Osaka Evessa win three bj-league titles. This season, the perennial All-Star will try to help the Ryukyu Golden Kings become a winning franchise in their second season. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"I'll just do whatever coach needs me to do to win."

That, of course, means plenty of putbacks, offensive rebounds and dunks, as well as picks to free up space for his teammates to shoot the ball and — you can't forget — blocked shots. He was the league leader in 2007-08 with 148 blocks, or 3.4 per game.

Newton produced 33 double-doubles last season, averaging 19.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. He is coming off a season in which he earned The Japan Times' bj-league MVP award.

He's ready for an encore performance.

"That's my brand," he blurted out during our conversation. "That's what I plan on bringing to the table and right now everybody is buying into it."

As a team, the Golden Kings have forged a tight bond during the preseason.

"Everybody is pretty much listening to what everybody has to say," Newton observed.

He added: "We are on the same page. Everybody is about the business of winning."

* * * * *

Oketani is the youngest head coach in the bj-league. He turns 31 in December.

In three years at Oita, he led the team to one playoff berth, an impressive feat at this early stage of his coaching career.

Newton said Oketani is quietly setting the agenda for the Golden Kings, but he has known what the expectations are since Day One.

"First, we want to make the playoffs and then get that No. 1 seed and then win a championship," Newton said. "Anything less and we didn't do our job this season."

Newton won't over-analyze what is expected of him. He chooses to make things as simple as possible.

Or as he put it: "I'm always comfortable. I'll just do whatever coach needs me to do to win."

Ryukyu fans witnessed the emergence of All-Star point guard Naoto Takushi last season. The No. 1 pick in the league's 2007 draft, Takushi gained a valuable year of experience running a team.

He is, in the words of Newton "probably the best point guard in the league," a statement that rises in significance with each passing year (the league has expanded from six teams in 2005-06 to 12 this season).

Center Chris Ayer, who spent the past two seasons at Oita, will suit up as the team's starting center. The 208-cm performer showed flashes of brilliance in 2006-07, but often appeared to be a "project" player, one who just needed more seasoning to become more consistent.

The former Loyola Marymount (Calif.) University big man showed more of the latter last season, and is now expected to take his game to another level this season.

"We are going to try to bring it inside with Big Chris as much as we can," said Newton.

Former Georgia Tech guard/forward Anthony McHenry is the team's other big-name foreign acquisition. McHenry spent last season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, where he played on a Final Four squad in 2004.

He also played in the British Basketball League in 2005-06, averaging 12.2 ppg for the DMU Leicester City Riders before signing with the Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League.

Newton predicts McHenry will become the Golden Kings' "new go-to guy."

"He's one of those guys that does it all," Newton said. "He's an all-around guy."

In the backcourt, Shigeyuki Kinjo is a reliable marksman from the perimeter, a gifted shooter who will help stretch the defense and create space in the lane for Newton and the team's other big fellows.

* * * * *

Newton played a major role in helping the Evessa capture their third title in May. Fellow three-time champion Matt Lottich opted to play ball in Germany this season, and Mikey Marshall, a key piece to the title team, didn't rejoin the squad, choosing to play in the Kuwait League this season.

Both are examples of the financial reality a team faces in a tough market.

Newton fits that description, too.

"I did expect to (return)," he told me, reflecting on his three years in Kansai. "We had something good going. I guess we had to go in our different directions. I had to do what's best for me and they had to do what's best for the organization in the end."

I asked Newton if negotiations took place between him and Osaka's front office. He confirmed that they did occur.

He didn't sound bitter or angry when I asked him about the end of his time with the Evessa. He simply sounded eager to begin this new chapter in his basketball career.

And now he has a new challenge, shifting to power forward from center. He welcomes the move.

"I'm getting to play some power forward this season," the 205-cm Newton said. "Big Chris will clog up the middle for us. It's nothing new for me. I did it in college. I should be able to get right back to it."

* * * * *

Takamatsu Five Arrows center George Leach is one of Newton's best friends in the bj-league. They both played at Indiana and enjoyed traveling together over the summer.

Newton's summer stops included Las Vegas, Florida and Jamaica. He also made his first trip back to Indiana since he was in college, calling it an enjoyable experience.

"I had time to sit back and chill out," Newton said, "and then got right back to it (basketball) over the last couple of months this summer."

Summer's over. But the laid-back beach attitude that people tend to have when they are sitting on the sand or swimming in the ocean will keep Newton happy off the court.

He agreed Okinawa's tropical paradise and sunny climate was one enticing aspect of getting a chance to play for the Golden Kings.

"It is nice seeing the ocean every morning," Newton said.

It's even nicer to win a championship. And you can be sure that's something the three-time champion won't forget as he attempts to win a fourth title.

* * * * *

Visit The Japan Times' Web site for extended preview coverage of the bj-league's season-opening weekend.



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