As a professional sports league grows, players become established stars. Such is the case with the bj-league, where Japanese basketball players are becoming household names in their home country.
|Takamatsu’s Yu Okada is The Japan Times’ most valuable Japanese player for the 2006-07 bj-league season.
TAKAMATSU FIVE ARROWS PHOTO
The bj-league wrapped up its second regular season on April 1. The two-day playoffs tip off on April 21.
But first it is time to recognize the league’s up-and-coming and established Japanese players.
THE STARTING FIVE: The Japan Times’ All-Japanese lineup consists of forwards Kazuhiro Shoji of the Saitama Broncos and Kazuya Hatano of the Osaka Evessa and guards Yu Okada of the Takamatsu Five Arrows, Hikaru Kusaka of the Sendai 89ers and Naoto Kosuge of the Niigata Albirex BB.
Shoji, a veteran sharpshooter, averaged 9.9 points per game for the Broncos and led the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (44.4 percent, or 67-for-151).
Simply put, Shoji excelled in that facet of the game. He had two or more 3s in 21 games, including a 5-for-8 effort on Nov. 18 and a 6-for-10 outing on Jan. 6.
“Everyone has a role,” Shoji said of his long-range shooting. “Though I am satisfied to have had a result like this, it is a pity that it did not lead to (more wins).”
Hatano, who hails from Brazil, made 40 starts for the first-place Evessa. In addition to his 7.9 ppg, Hatano pulled down 199 rebounds, dished out 32 assists, made 20 steals and blocked 14 shots. He is a steady playmaker on both ends of the floor.
Okada attempted a whopping 301 3-point attempts, draining 103 of them. Game after game, his long-range shooting skills were a key ingredient for the Five Arrows.
He was never afraid to take a shot. Consider: He took 10 or more 3s in 11 games; he made three or more in 18 games, including 8-for-12 on Nov 18 and 5-for-15 on Jan. 13.
Averaging 11.0 ppg, Okada also made 51.7 percent from 2-point range and 84.1 percent at the charity stripe.
Kusaka is the top Japanese passer in the league. He ranked third among all players with 4.2 assists per game (168 overall). He also had 7.8 ppg and 59 steals. His development as a passer bodes well for the 89ers in the future. He more than doubled his output in assists from the previous season (78 in 2005-06).
Kosuge started all 40 games for the Albirex and led the team in minutes played (1,240). He scored 8.2 ppg. He drained 33.7 percent of his 3-point shots and 56.7 percent of his attempts from inside the arc, the latter of which made it tough for Niigata coach Masaya Hirose to take him off the floor.
JAPANESE MVP: Okada. He plays a difficult role for a first-year club and thrives at it.
BEST OF THE REST: Sendai 89ers shooting guard Kensaku Takahashi scored 8.5 ppg and made 40 steals. . . . Broncos point guard Taishiro Shimizu gave his team speed, hustle, 9.4 ppg, 125 assists and 36 steals. . . . Evessa shooting guard Masashi Joho hit 37.6 percent of his 3-point attempts (44-for-117) and scored 6.7 ppg. . . . Oita HeatDevils point guard Yukinori Suzuki is a workhorse for his team, playing 30-plus minutes a game. He dished out 120 assists and put 9.4 ppg on the board, while reaching double figures 17 times. . . . Kohei Mitomo, Suzuki’s backcourt mate, made 38 starts and contributed 7.2 ppg. He had a season-high 28 point-effort in the team’s seventh game and 20 in its next-to-last contest.
TOYAMA GROUSES PHOTO
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Kohei Aoki, the Apache point guard, is now one of the top Japanese guards and one of the bj-league’s most electrifying players.
Despite his team’s second-half woes, Aoki was a bright spot in the final weeks of the season. He had 20 or more points in nine of Tokyo’s final 12 games.
Aoki, the league’s shortest player at 167 cm, finished the season with 12.3 ppg, 100 assists and 56 steals.
His breakout performance was on March 11, when he scored 38, including 14 of 14 from the free-throw line, against the Albirex.
When one watches Aoki on the court now, this is what they see: The speedy backcourt standout is now mentally focused and a blur in motion when he drives through traffic.
“I think when you look at last year, when every time he made a mistake, he always would put his head down,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said. “This year, when he does make a mistake, it is just a mistake and he continues to play hard.
“Aoki has become a consistent player,” Bryant added.
But he hasn’t reached his potential yet.
“When you have a small player like A.I. (Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson) that’s just relentless and attacking it is very difficult for teams to defend him.
“That’s what I am going to challenge him to be,” added Bryant.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Toyama Grouses point guard Takanori Goya had a lot of responsibility this season as the floor leader of an expansion team.
He handled his role admirably, starting all 40 games for the Grouses. He averaged 8.9 ppg, dished out 102 assists and had 70 turnovers, figures that will only improve with time.
Another encouraging sign: Goya, the No. 1 overall pick in last spring’s draft, hit 75.3 percent of his free throws and 52.2 percent of his 2-point attempts.
These solid figures demonstrate that the 23-year-old Okinawan focuses on the fundamentals, not just on making flashy plays.
What’s more, Goya topped the double-digit mark in points on 18 occasions.
SECOND-HALF STANDOUTS: Point guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa of the Five Arrows and shooting guard Naoto Nakamura of the Evessa joined their respective teams in February and made significant contributions over the season’s final two months.
Nakagawa, a former ABA and USBL player, had 11 points in his Takamatsu debut and had 10 or more points in each of the next five games.
He missed seven games with an injury, but returned to form. He averaged 11.9 ppg and showcased other skills along the way, getting seven steals on Feb. 8 and a season-high five assists in the regular-season finale on April 1.
Nakamura gave the Albirex another scoring option on the perimeter in the season’s second half. He recorded seven points on Feb. 4, his first game of the season. He tallied 10 or more five times over the next 16 games.
COMING TOMORROW: The Japan Times reveals its 2006-07 all-league team, including its regular-season MVP winner.