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Diminutive Aoki no pushover at point

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Even at only 167 cm, Kohei Aoki stands tall.

News photoKohei Aoki, left, has made a big impact for the Tokyo Apache despite standing just 167 cm.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

The 25-year-old Aoki was named the bj-league’s Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week on Jan. 16, and is the man to watch on the Tokyo Apache.

On Saturday, Aoki will play in the bj-league’s first-ever All-Star Game in Okinawa along with teammate John “Helicopter” Humphrey.

He’s become a big reason for fans to visit Ariake Colosseum now. This is easily proven when he enters the game as a backup (he’s also started nine of the team’s 22 games this season).

Just as they send huge cheers for starters, such as Humphrey or Michael Jackson, the Apache boosters clap their hands and give warm applause to Aoki when he leaves the bench and sheds his warmups to get ready to enter the game.

The reason is as simple as the Earth spins: This small man can play the game and energize his team with his spectacular moves.

“Being small has been something I had to accept since when I was a child,” Aoki said, chuckling. “I just will do what I can do with what I’m equipped (with).”

Aoki plays point guard and moves the ball around the court with his solid ball-handling techniques.

Most times, he looks for a man who is open, but if the opposing team’s defense is playing tight, he pushes the ball and goes to the bucket himself.

Of course, even attempting a shot is not always as easy for Aoki as other players due to his short stature. But he is blessed with a soft, precise shooting touch — his quick wrists make this possible — and that makes him special in this league.

Aoki is second in the league in free-throw percentage at 85.4.

Another thing that is special about him is invisible: courage.

Aoki attacks the basket as bravely as anyone in the league. He doesn’t hesitate to penetrate in the lane even if big guys like Jack Hartman of the Niigata Albirex BB and Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa are waiting for him.

He scored 17 points and added five steals in the Jan. 13 game against Niigata, and kept the momentum in the following contest with nine points.

In both games the underdog Apache sank the Albirex. Aoki’s performances were fantastic, which earned him the aforementioned weekly MVP award.

“I’m not surprised,” Tokyo coach Joe Bryant said. “Kohei penetrates and he can make shots, although he is the smallest guy on the court. He is a tough cookie. This guy had a really good weekend when we played against Niigata.”

Now, stopping Aoki has become a big part of foes’ defensive strategies — like limiting the scoring production of Humphrey or Damieon Baker has been.

“Kohei-kun is a good player,” Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi said after Sunday’s game at Ariake. “I told (guard Haruhito) Shishito to put pressure on him in order to halt him.

“Even when Kohei-kun doesn’t take a shot, if he feeds good passes, that leads to good scoring chances for the Apache.”

With Shishito sticking to him throughout the game, Aoki was held to 1-for-7 shooting from inside the arc and seven points in Sunday’s 97-75 loss to Osaka.

But Bryant did not feel let down by his performance.

“I’m not concerned that he went 1-for-7,” Bryant said. “Because he still played good basketball.”

Aoki had 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals in Saturday’s 84-81 loss to the Evessa.

Aoki has played in all 22 games this season. He is averaging 8.3 points and shooting 41 percent from the field, with 1.9 assists and 1.5 steals.