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Youthful Japanese talent is abundant in bj-league

by Ed Odeven

The scoring prowess of John “Helicopter” Humphrey, the shot-blocking skills of Jeff Newton and the all-around dominance of Lynn Washington are recurring themes over the first three-plus seasons of the bj-league’s existence. But remember this: another satisfying scenario is occurring again and again.

More and more, Japanese players are becoming genuine basketball stars in their native country.

Ryukyu Golden Kings point guard Naoto Takushi, for instance, has the wherewithal and the shooter’s touch to light up the scoreboard for two dozen or so points whenever he steps onto the court. Sometimes, though, he can make a major difference in other aspects of the game.

Look at Sunday’s box score for clear-cut evidence. Takushi scored zero points. No problem. His team still won, cruising to an 86-64 victory over the Oita HeatDevils. Takushi had 10 rebounds and six assists, proving again he can do the “little things” that yield big dividends in a victory.

On the same day, Niigata Albirex BB forward Yuichi Ikeda posted his third consecutive 20-or-more-point outing, registering 26 points in the book in a 95-92 win over the Toyama Grouses. In the previous game, Ikeda scored 27, drained 4 of 7 3-pointers and knocked down 7 of 8 shots from the charity stripe.

Ikeda has scored in double digits in each game this season, giving the new-look (translation: in rebuilding mode) Albirex desperately needed consistent scoring punch.

Without Ikeda’s 19.2 points per game, it’s highly unlikely his team would be 3-3 at this point.

Saitama Broncos shooting guard Yuki Kitamuki has materialized as one of the bright young stars in this league. After just six games, Kitamuki has forced opposing coaches to pay close attention to where he is on the perimeter, especially beyond the 3-point arc.

The 23-year-old Kitamuki has drained 20 of 40 3-point attempts this season, including an almost-unfathomable 7 of 10 in the Broncos’ 97-80 win over the Albirex on Oct. 25. It was his simultaneous version of a trick and a treat, only days ahead of Halloween, a 27-point, jaw-dropping performance. Just ask Saitama coach David Benoit, who won’t run out of superlatives when the topic of Kitamuki comes up.

Kitamuki isn’t just dropping long-range shot after long-range shot through the rim. When he drives into the lane, spots up for a mid-range jumper or earns a visit to the foul line, he’s producing big-time numbers, too. His 2-point percentage is 59.1, and his success ratio at the free-throw line is 93.8.

Those numbers are impressive in any professional league, especially for a 23-year-old who is still learning how to be a go-to player.

Meanwhile, Shikoku’s finest sharpshooter, Yu Okada, continues to grow as a player. The third-year Takamatsu Five Arrows shooting guard’s sensational start to the 2008-09 season is one of the main reasons his team is 5-1, sitting one game behind up-and-coming Ryukyu in the Western Conference standings.

Okada, 25, is averaging 16.3 ppg. Furthermore, his passing skills have begun to flourish under the steady leadership of coach Motofumi Aoki. He has 32 assists, or the twice the number of turnovers he’s committed.

In addition, Okada has made three or more steals in three games already. It’s a sign that his defensive awareness and intensity have improved as well.

By the way, the Japan Basketball Association ought to invite Okada to the next national team tryout. To do otherwise would be foolish and illustrate to anyone paying attention that it has stubbornly failed to recognize the talent that does exist in the bj-league, and done little to help the national team succeed on the international level.

In the Five Arrows’ season opener, Okada scored 23 points. He struggled from 3-point range (1-for-6), but knocked down his other shots (10-for-11). Again, his growth as a player is quite impressive.

Fast forward to Sunday and review the statistics. Okada scored a team-best 32 points, including 6 of 8 from downtown, in an 88-84 triumph over the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa, who have a coach, Kensaku Tennichi, who knows a thing or two about making in-game adjustments. Those adjustments, however, failed to stop Okada from putting up Reggie Miller-like shooting numbers.

The first-year Shiga Lakestars also have a budding star in forward Yosuke Machida, who was the No. 1 pick in May’s bj-league draft. The 25-year-old is averaging 10.5 ppg and already proven himself to be a capable shot-blocker, rebounder and physical presence at both ends of the floor.

“(He) is starting to play like the player we thought he would be,” said Lakestars coach Bob Pierce. “By being more aggressive, adding more drives and cuts to balance his 3-point shooting, he has become more consistent.”

Shiga (2-4) has benefited from Machida’s offensive output — 13, 18 and 15 points — in his last three games.

“He is still just scratching the surface of his potential,” Pierce added.

It’s also appropriate to point out that Tokyo Apache point guard Cohey Aoki, the league’s second-shortest player at 167 cm, remains one of the biggest attractions.

Coming off the bench (in five of the first six games), Aoki is a burst of energy for Tokyo coach Joe Bryant. Case in point: The 27-year-old Aoki poured in 18 points in 20 minutes in Sunday’s 98-88 win over the Sendai 89ers.

One of Aoki’s backcourt mates, Masashi Joho, I must admit, is one of my favorite basketball players on the planet. Simply put, he is a whirling dervish on the court. With the ball in his hands, the speedy Joho glides from side to side, stepping between defenders, zigzagging in the lane, and creating space for his own jumper and his teammates’ shots.

Still just 26, Joho has already earned a pair of championship rings while playing on the Evessa’s first two title teams. Since joining the Apache before the start of the 2007-08 season, he has become a key contributor in terms of production, owning an aggressive attitude that is contagious.

“Joho, he’s fast,” Bryant said. “I think with the ball he can go north and south or east and west (very effectively). And I think coaches in the past they tended to think that he’s out of control. . . . But I want him out of control, because that’s when Joho’s at his best, so you let Joho be Joho, and I’m not trying to change who he is — be who you are.

“I’m really happy to see the way Joho plays and the speed that he uses.”

Bryant added: “Right now he might be best served for us as a starter because he starts the game off so quickly and so up-tempo. That might be his niche for the Apache — to start.”

Joho isn’t leading the bj-league in any significant statistical categories. But he does have a flair for the dramatic — his moniker could be “The Exclamation Point” — as we were reminded on Sunday at Ariake Colosseum when he hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers in the final three minutes.

“I just love Joho,” Bryant concluded. “He’ll make a shot and it might be only three points, but it feels like 50 points at that moment.

“He just has that impact on the game where every shot he makes is kind of a big shot.”

Joho’s relentless defense is one of his trademarks as well, and it’s a growing reminder that in the bj-league’s fourth season more and more Japanese players are becoming well-known standouts.