Cohey Aoki settled into a comfortable groove as the starting point guard of the Tokyo Apache.
He was at his best in early February, scoring 30-plus points in three straight games, a stretch in which he made (and attempted) 26 free throws.
Yet despite Aoki’s singular scoring brilliance, his team lost two of those games.
A few weeks later, Joe Bryant, the team’s third-year head coach, shook things up. He asked Aoki to come off the bench and become the team’s sixth man.
The move paid off.
Aoki thrived in his new role, giving the Apache a jolt of firepower off the bench.
Tokyo went on to win 10 of its last 11 regular-season games, paving the way for the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a trip to the finals for the first time in team history.
Aoki is The Japan Times’ Japanese Player of the Year for the bj-league.
By not letting pride get in the way, Aoki embraced the team-first approach preached by Bryant. And in doing so, he demonstrated that he can excel at whatever role is asked of him.
Aoki averaged 15.8 points per game in 2007-08 (42 games, 27 starts). He shot 3-pointers at a 40-percent clip (80-for-200) and drained free throws at a Rick Barry-like 89.5 percent (170-for-190), missing out on his third successive free-throwing shooting title. Osaka Evessa shooting guard Naoto Nakamura won the title, making 91 percent of his foul shots (61 of 67).
Despite being the shortest major-minutes player in the league, the 167-cm Aoki has elevated his game in each of his three seasons under the tutelage of Bryant. He takes more free throws than most players 20 cm taller.
He is also a gifted passer, threading the needle on bounce passes and no-look dishes with equal precision. On the season, the Fukuoka native had 134 assists and 93 turnovers.
Here’s a look at the top Japanese players in the bj-league in 2007-08:
POINT GUARD: Naoto Takushi of the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Tsubasa Yonamine of the Oita HeatDevils were the top assist men in the league this season. Both players have the ability to be impact-makers in this league for the next decade.
Takushi averaged a league-best 5.8 assists per game despite playing for an expansion team that lost 34 of 44 contests. Nevertheless, he’s become a model for future No. 1 picks in this league.
As Rizing Fukuoka coach John Neumann said at a recent news conference, “Takushi is a great player. He’s scoring 10-15 points every single game.”
Takushi averaged 14.2 ppg, including a season-high 34 against the Toyama Grouses on March 2.
He contributed 82 steals and had nearly a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. As Takushi’s game develops, he will get to the foul line more frequently, taking advantage of his 75.2 percent free-throw shooting.
Yonamine finished second in the assist department this season. He averaged 5.6 per game. What’s more, he did so with an almost-unheard-of output (248 assists, 66 turnovers).
By and large, the Okinawa native is a pure point guard. He’s expected to pass first and score when the opportunity presents itself.
He tallied 6.4 ppg, putting double digits on the board only 11 times and finishing with zero points on four occasions.
It’s the notion here that it would be a benefit to the team if Oita coach Dai Oketani convinces Yonamine to assert himself more as a scorer next season. As a result, he would become more dangerous as a passer.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tokyo’s Darin Satoshi Maki, the Rizing Fukuoka’s Tsuyoshi Kawazura, the Saitama Broncos’ Taishiro Shimizu and the Sendai 89ers’ Hikaru Kusaka.
SHOOTING GUARD, PART I: A new standout emerged this season among Japanese sharpshooters. Masayuki Kabaya of the Toyama Grouses was a model of consistency for the lowly Toyama Grouses.
He scored in double digits in 35 games (tops among Japanese players), averaged 14.4 ppg and drained 125 3-pointers.
Kabaya attempted 307 3s, fulfilling basketball’s description of a perimeter sniper.
Yu Okada of the Takamatsu Five Arrows kept his name in the spotlight this season as well. In his second season in the league, Okada averaged 13.6 ppg and sank 115 3s, taking 281 in the process.
His 112 assists and 48 steals showed other elements of his game that should only improve in time.
SHOOTING GUARD, PART II: Nakamura made an instant impact when he joined the Kansai squad last season. His role expanded this season and so, too, did his production.
Nakamura made 42 starts and scored 10.6 ppg. He was No. 3 in 3-point shooting accuracy (42.3 percent, or 91-for-215) and nearly automatic at the free-throw line.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tokyo’s Masashi Joho and Oita’s Yukinori Suzuki (No. 1 in 3-point percentage at 50.4, 57-for-113).
FRONTCOURT: Niigata Albirex BB small forward Yuichi Ikeda gave his club 10.0 ppg, 44 starts, 123 rebounds, 73 assists and 24 steals. Simply put, the 24-year-old is a name to keep an eye on in the future. He has found a home in this league.
Evessa forward Kazuya “Jay” Hatano collected his third championship ring this season.
Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi penciled in his name in the starting lineup 44 times, and Hatano delivered 8.7 ppg, 245 rebounds and an infinite amount of energy in the paint and on the fast break.
STARTERS: Ikeda and Hatano.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Broncos’ Kazuhiro Shoji and Tokyo’s Jumpei Nakama.