As its fan base continues to grow over the next several seasons, Niigata Albirex BB standouts Akitomo Takeno and Yuichi Ikeda will emerge as household names for the bj-league. In fact, they’ve already shown flashes of greatness.
Just 23, All-Star Takeno has established himself as one of league’s elite shooters. Averaging 13.2 points per game, the point guard with a smooth-shooting stroke is a 41.1 percent shooter from 3-point range and 90.3 percent from the free-throw line. He is No. 2 in the league in 3-point shooting percentage and free-throw shooting.
Tokyo Apache fans will also recall that Takeno didn’t miss a shot in the series opener at Yoyogi National Gymnasium Annex on Feb. 4, going 8-for-8 from the field (5-for-5 on 3-pointers) and 5-for-5 at the line in an electrifying 26-point, 19-minute performance off the bench as the Albirex beat Tokyo 86-68.
If any game would convince a young player he has the skills to compete in a pro league for years to come — in this case, Takeno, who joined Niigata last season — Feb. 4 would be that game.
The Eastern Conference squads resume their rivalry this weekend at Yoyogi. Tokyo (27-17) played its final regular-season game at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday, losing the second game of a two-game set against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.
Now, the Apache return to the court against a team that gives them trouble; the Albirex (25-19) have won four of six games in the season series, including the last three contests.
Ikeda, a 25-year-old All-Star forward, has also found his niche playing for Niigata coach Masaya Hirose. A dependable 3-point shooter, Ikeda, posting a 12.5-ppg average, is one of five players averaging double figures in scoring on the club.
It’s safe to assume Ikeda will enter this weekend with plenty of confidence, too. He scored a season-high 32 points, including 6-for-10 from 3-point range, in Sunday’s win over the Saitama Broncos.
In the same game, Takeno made 5 of 9 3-point attempts.
Opposing teams have learned that both perimeter marksmen can beat them. This, of course, gives coaches plenty of time to ponder the following:
Should I tell my players to double-team Ikeda? Should they double-team Takeno? Should we avoid either option?
The Apache-Albirex series will also feature this statistical rarity for this stage of the season: two players making more than 90 percent of their free throws.
Tokyo Apache point guard Cohey Aoki is No. 1 in that department (90.4 percent, or 142-for-157), and Takeno is 102-for-113 from the line.
(Marketing wizards could come up with plenty of worse ideas than having Aoki and Takeno compete in a 100-shot contest and airing the event on prime-time TV.)
Up next: The rest of this weekend’s two-game series features Osaka Evessa (27-17) vs. Shiga Lakestars (17-27), Sendai 89ers (25-19) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (30-14), Saitama Broncos (17-27) vs. Toyama Grouses (10-34), Takamatsu Five Arrows (27-17) vs. Oita HeatDevils (7-37) and Rizing Fukuoka (20-24) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (33-11).
Coach’s perspective: Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura marveled at the speed of his starting point guard, Michael Gardener, after Sunday’s game against the Tokyo Apache at Ariake Colosseum.
With the ball in his hands, Nakamura said, “Gardener is the fastest player in the league going from the backcourt to the frontcourt.”
The coach added that Gardener’s ability to lead the fast break, grabbing the rebound and taking off at full speed to initiate the offense, reminds him of Magic Johnson’s style of play for the Showtime Lakers during the team’s championship heyday in the 1980s.