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Friday, Sept. 24, 2010


The constructor: Pierce using Shiga experience to help in Akita

Bob Pierce is the first head coach in bj-league history to be handed the reins of two expansion teams in their first seasons.

Ed Odeven

After leading the Shiga Lakestars for two seasons, including a playoff appearance in their second season during the 2009-10 campaign, he's embraced a new challenge as the first bench boss in Akita Northern Happinets history. (The Miyazaki Shining Suns and Shimane Susanoo Magic also begin their first seasons in October.)

Akita played its first-ever preseason game on Sunday, earning an 86-77 victory over the host Toyama Grouses.

After the game, Pierce had plenty to smile about. He also had a number of things to analyze — and the same is true for any coach after several weeks of preparation.

This much is certain: The Happinets are a work in progress. Expansion teams, especially in the early stages of a season, have so many adjustments to make.

"(I'm) very happy with the win considering that Anthony Coleman had only been here one week, Sek Henry and Antonio Burks just two weeks," Pierce told The Japan Times. "And we had three import players to Toyama's five, but we were out-rebounded 63-49, and that is a major concern."

But there's help on the way. Akita has recently brought in bj-league veteran Paul Butorac, who played for the Niigata Albirex BB in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. Butorac, a former Eastern Washington big man, is the fourth ex-Albirex player to join the Happinets; the others are Makoto Hasegawa, Burks and Ryosuke Mizumachi.

Pierce considers Butorac a vital piece to the team's puzzle.

News photo
Man in charge: Akita Northern Happinets coach Bob Pierce is guiding the expansion club during its first season. AKITA NORTHERN HAPPINETS/bj-league
News photo
Tone-setter: Veteran forward Kazuhiro Shoji (10) is expected to be one of the expansion Happinets' team leaders this season. AKITA NORTHERN HAPPINETS/bj-league
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New kid in town: Akita Happinets rookie Makoto Sawaguchi (right) drives to the basket on Sept. 19 in an exhibition game against the Toyama Grouses. AKITA NORTHERN HAPPINETS/bj-league

"Not only is Paul a hard-working player who rebounds and runs the floor, but he already has great chemistry with guys that are on our team," the coach stated.

There were plenty of individual highlights for the Akita coaching staff to take a look at in the exhibition opener, most notably the all-around play of Henry, who had 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and six steals. Those are game stats of an experienced All-Star floor leader, which is why Pierce was so pleased with the results.

"He is only a rookie, having just graduated from Nebraska, but could be as good as any guard in the bj-league," Pierce said of Henry.

Hasegawa, a longtime Albirex player and former JBL standout, has a dual role this season as a player and a position akin to a director of operations for an NCAA Division I team. Plus, with his local connections in his home prefecture of Akita, he's a building block to the community.

He sat out the game against Toyama due to a minor injury, but "has been solid in practice," Pierce said.

* * * * *

Hasegawa will turn 40 in April and he can't be expected to play 30-35 minutes every game. But he will be counted on to provide support off the bench.

The team's backcourt rotation, meanwhile, is starting to take shape.

"Ryosuke Mizumachi has been a very pleasant surprise," Pierce said. "I knew he was tough and hardworking, but he can play the point as well. In practice, Sek and Mizumachi usually are the point guards on opposite teams, although I think we will start them as a 1 and 2 combo. When Sek is out, Mizumachi and/or Hasegawa will be the point guard."

On the perimeter, Akita will rely heavily on the contributions of Burks, Kazuhiro Shoji and Yuki Kikuchi, all of whom are quality long-range shooters.

This area could be one of the team's strengths.

"Kikuchi is from Akita, and played at Noshiro (Technical High School) with Yuta Tabuse, but this is his first shot at playing in the bj-league," Pierce noted. "He has been working hard at his conditioning, and could be a starter by the opening game. His quick release and range are amazing, and he should be fun to watch.

"Shoji is a former Japan national team player (he was on the team in 2002 when I was the assistant coach), as is Hasegawa, so we have veteran leadership that should really help us. Shoji is really strong, and matched up with some of Toyama's import players during the game on Sunday. He also came up with some big shots and big plays that helped us preserve the win.

"And Antonio has deep range, and has proven his worth in the bj-league the past two seasons."

Every team needs proven veteran leaders. It's a coach's job to blend the talents of experienced and less-seasoned pros together to develop a playoff contender.

For Pierce, one big part of his job this season will be finding out how to put Makoto Sawaguchi, an 18-year-old rookie, in situations where he can succeed. The coach, who turns 50 during the summer, considers Sawaguchi the team's X-factor, and knows he'll give him joy and a few grays hairs during the long season.

Sawaguchi attended Morioka South High School. He is 184 cm and weights 80 kg. He was Akita's No. 2 pick in the summer's development draft.

"He makes plays that leave us all shaking our heads," Pierce said of Sawaguchi, "I think the fans in the bj-league are going to love him. He reminds me of a young (Masashi) Joho, who of course I was extremely blessed to be able to coach last season. Sawaguchi plays with a real joy and zest for the game that is contagious."

And he's already proven that he can be a productive player in this league. In a scrimmage against Niigata on Sept. 18, Sawaguchi scored 11 points.

"He's probably still too young to start, but talented enough that I have to think about it," said Pierce.

Center Anthony Coleman, with extensive playing experience in the NBA Development League, had a solid debut in a Happinets uniform, with 14 points and 14 rebounds. That was an encouraging sign for the Happinets, but you can't base a player's projected output on a single game.

As Pierce put it: "The learning curve for bigs in the league can be steep, especially as we wait to see what kind of officiating we will have this season."

Yuki Nobuhira, a 188-cm forward out of Hosei University, is also in the mix in the frontcourt. "He gives us athleticism, but he still needs to figure out what he can do at this level," the coach said.

* * * * *

From TV, radio and newspaper interviews that highlight the newness of the team and the meet-and-greet sessions with local students at clinics, there is plenty of optimism and feel-good vibes for the Happinets. (The team's name doesn't hurt, either).

But there's a lot of tedious work — and long hours — that takes place behind the scenes, and often it doesn't go as smoothly as the front office, coaching staff and players would like.

"Starting a first-year team is a real challenge, as I'm sure Shimane and Miyazaki will attest," Pierce said. "The first few practices in August were without a clock or timer, no line tape for the bj-league 3-point line, no cones for drills, no white board to diagram plays. . . . Now slowly we are getting all the things we need.

"Makoto Hasegawa works all the time reaching out to friends and connections to try to make this work here in Akita."

That said, there's an unbridled enthusiasm that can carry a team — and a community that supports it — during its opening season. And it's special.

"Seeing the smiles on the faces of the Akita fans who made it to Toyama last Sunday reminded me of the beginnings in Shiga," Pierce said. "It's a lot of work, but teams in these (smaller) markets really do fill a void and help to bring pride to the sports fans there.

"All of us are working as hard as we can to have the best team possible in this inaugural season. We certainly hope it will be a tough road trip for all the visiting teams."

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