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Kyoto ace Abdul-Rauf staves off Father Time

by Ed Odeven

OSAKA — Kyoto Hannaryz guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf participated in the 3-Point Shootout during Sunday’s All-Star festivities, providing a thrill for the enthusiastic crowd at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.

The former NBA standout gave fans of all ages a delightful memory to talk about in years to come. They can say they saw Abdul-Rauf while he played in Japan.

Even though the 41-year-old, averaging 13.9 points per game, probably should have been given a special spot on the Western Conference All-Star squad to drum up greater interest among fans and the media — heck, he was already there to begin with — he holds no grudges.

“I don’t mean this as no respect, but when I play basketball, I don’t play with the design of looking to make the All-Star team, I don’t,” Abdul-Rauf said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times. “I want to do the best I can, because these things don’t define your career. Some of it is based on popularity, some is based on actually going out and getting it so even in the NBA (you can say), ‘Why didn’t he make it?’

“Again, you can’t take it too seriously, so when I play I just try to do the best I can and keep moving.”

The Hannaryz, a second-year team, are 13-13 at the season’s midway point, and that’s a disappointing fact to the former All-American scoring sensation at LSU.

“We are still underachieving,” said Abdul-Rauf, who was the No. 3 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. “We expected to be better than we are now, but yet at the same time, we’ve been coming together, we’ve been playing great ball. It was a rocky start at the beginning. I think we were all trying to find our niche, trying to balance minutes, trying to find our role.”

He cited injuries to frontcourt standouts Reggie Warren and Michael Fey in December as providing a chance for the team to forge a new identity.

Coming off a rocky 17-35 season, which began with David Benoit at the helm and ended with current head coach Kazuto Aono running the show, the Hannaryz have made progress and developed into a more cohesive unit.

“It’s not just about us (foreign players), it’s about the team. And from what I’ve been told, a lot of the teams that have been winning over the years here, you’ve got to have good Japanese players, and ours have definitely stepped up of late, and we just hope it continues.”

So what’s become this team’s biggest focal point for improvement?

“Defensively, though, I think we’ve picked it up a little bit more also, and that’s what we are stressing more than anything right now — let the defense fuel our offense,” he said.

Abdul-Rauf has played in 21 of Kyoto’s first 26 games — he missed the last one due to a one-game suspension — so for the most part he’s been healthy, as well as productive (he’s shooting 51.3 percent from 2-point range and 87.5 percent at the charity stripe). He turns 42 in March, but holds the same view he had before the season began about his future. In other words, he’s not considering retirement anytime soon.

“As long as I’ve got the desire and the health . . . (and) if a team wants me for next year and the deal is right, I’m ready to go, because like I’ve said I still feel like I’ve got a lot to offer,” he said. “My health right now, as far as I know, is great.

“I get up and look forward to competing. I work out twice a day four or five days a week, because after practice I always go to the health club and work out, too. So I feel good, man, and as long as I feel this way and with the blessing of my family, I’m going to keep playing.”

The Hannaryz have grown under Aono’s tutelage, though probably not as quickly as Abdul-Rauf or the coaching staff would hope. Still, there has been progress.

“Yeah, and our Japanese players, even the way they stepped up in Shiga, they’ve become more confident and they are playing better ball, too, and we need that,” said Abdul-Rauf, noting Kyoto’s 105-84 win over the Lakestars on Jan. 16 in which Sunao Murakami scored 17 points, Naoto Nakamura added 16 and Taizo Kawabe had 12.

“But I think in light of that there were some positives that came out of it also. The ones that were there, it enables us time to jell a little bit more, so that when they come back, I think it’s going to be even that much better. Because like I said, man, we are .500 now. We beat Okinawa (the Golden Kings) at Okinawa, which was difficult last year; it’s difficult this year.”

He added: “I’m hopeful, man, I really am that this second half is going to be better because we’ve been making progress.

“Look we could’ve (lost our focus) when Reggie and Mike went down, we could’ve used that as an excuse: ‘w, shucks,’ but we didn’t. We didn’t lay down. Our practices have been more intense. We come out in the game and we’ve been playing better.

“We really want to make the playoffs. It’s just not saying it.”

With this being Aono’s first season in charge from the get-go after assistant coaching stints for Kyoto and Saitama, Abdul-Rauf was asked to assess the the ex-player’s performance in leading the team.

He admitted it’s been a work in progress, but he credits Aono for being willing to listen to player’s complaints, including his own.

“Initially, it was a little rocky,” Abdul-Rauf said. “Coach and I had to sit down a couple of times because I wasn’t happy. He kept trying to find minutes (for me) and he knows it. These things happen in the course of a year, and I was unhappy about how I was being played and I said, ‘Look man, utilize me.’ I didn’t feel I was being utilized and we came to an understanding, and now so far things have been going great.”

Aono is also learning how to exude authority on the court.

“I think he’s definitely grown,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I think for the most part he’s keeping a better balance with players in terms of firmness and being easy. You’ve got to be able to manage people, too. He’s constantly pushing the defense. We work pretty hard in practice. It’s structured.

“I’m definitely way more comfortable with it than last year (under former coach David Benoit), and it helps when you’re winning.”

Midseason survey: As the second half of the season began this week, it’s now time to take stock of the first three-plus months.

More than two dozen individuals around the leagues — coaches, players, fellow journalists, longtime fans — were asked for their opinions about the first half of the season.

Pollsters were asked to select their leading candidates for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man Award, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. Some individuals considered only players in their first year in the bj-league in the rookie category; others picked players who are first-year pros.

Selected responses follow:

• Akita Northern Happinets coach Bob Pierce submitted the following answers:

MVP

Lynn Washington

(Osaka; No. 2 in scoring; tied for ninth in rebounds).

To figure out a players value, try removing that player from the lineup, and then imagine the results. Take Arnold, Nixon, or Parmer out of Hamamatsu’s lineup, and they still would probably be in first place. Remove Lynn from Osaka, and they might not be a playoff team. With all the injuries they’ve had this year to key Japanese players at the halfway point they are still in first place in the West.

Rookie of the Year

1. Mac Hopson (Sendai guard)

2. Sek Henry (Akita)

3. Takumi Ishizaki (Shimane guard)

But if you discount Ishizaki for having played in the JBL, (and don’t count import players), then Lee Hyechoeon from Sendai, followed by (the Happinets’) Makoto Sawaguchi.

But (Akita’s) Mac Hopson and Sek Henry have both been phenomenal rookies this year.

Sixth Man Award

Wayne Arnold. But not really fair because they don’t start him by design. Hardly in the spirit of this award. He plays the second most minutes on the team, so not really a sixth man.

In the spirit of the Sixth Man Award I would select:

1. Kenichi Takahashi (Sendai)

2. Yuki Kitamuki (Saitama)

3. Sunao Murakami (Kyoto)

Coach of the Year (at the halfway point)

1. L.J. Hepp (Oita)

2. Koto Toyama (Miyazaki)

3. Zeljko Pavlicevic (Shimane)

These guys are getting the most out of what they have. It’s not wins and losses at this point, but exceeding expectations and competing game in and game out.

Defensive Player of the Year

Michael Parker. No other player changes more games with steals and blocked shots than Parker.

Most Improved Player

Ryosuke Mizumachi. Played a total of 219 minutes last season for Niigata. Now starting for Akita (has started 24 of 26 games), and averaging 30 minutes per game (783 minutes). Currently ranked 18th in the league in assists at 3.2 (ahead of every Niigata player!), and 18th in the league in steals at 1.4 per game.

• Tokyo Apache guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who has played in the league since 2005, provided his perspectives:

MVP

1. Jeffrey Parmer. Best player on best team.

2. Michael Parker. Ranks in most statistical categories for overachieving Fukuoka team.

3. Lynn Washington. Night in, night out, year in, year out, does what it takes to win games. Even though their imports always change, Osaka is always in the race because of him.

4. Mike Bell (Sendai). Best player on second-place team, does everything.

Honorable mention

Mikey Marshall (Shiga)

Chris Holm (Sendai)

Gary Hamilton (Shiga)

Rookie of the Year

Ishizaki

Sixth Man

1. Wayne Arnold. Leading first place Hamamatsu in scoring coming off the bench.

2. Yu Okada (Shiga). Has turned it on as of late, would be a starter on any other team.

Coach of the Year

1. Hamamatsu’s Kazuo Nakamura. Even though he is crazy, he gets the best out of his troops.

2. Osaka’s Ryan Blackwell. First-year coach doing well so far.

3. Sendai’s Honoo Hamaguchi. Every year his team is in the running.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Parker. Leader in steals and top eight in rebounds, sixth in blocks. . . . Every year!

2. Gary Hamilton. Leads league in rebounds and second in steals.

3. Chris Holm. Second in rebounding, holds down the paint.

Most Improved player

1. Tokyo’s Jumpei Nakama. Average player to All-Star.

2. Tokyo’s Kensuke Tanaka. From zero minutes a year ago to heavy rotation.

Disclaimer: I am a little biased with this MIP because I see these guys everyday and I knew where they were last season.

• Oita HeatDevils coach L.J. Hepp joined the discussion, too:

MVP

Lynn Washington

Rookie

Takumi Ishizaki

Sixth Man

David Palmer (Ryukyu)

Coach

Kazuo Nakamura

Defensive

Jackie Manuel (Miyazaki)

Most Improved

Shuichi Takada (Takamatsu)

• Saitama Broncos center George Leach passes along these responses:

MVP

Unsure

Most improved

Mike Bell

Rookie of the Year (New player to the league)

Kenny Satterfield

Sixth Man

Wayne Arnold

Defensive

Jeff Newton

Coach of the Year

Between Hamamatsu’s Nakamura and Coach Nash for turning around the Broncos.

• Shimane coach Zeljko Pavlicevic dished out this insight:

MVP

1. Gary Hamilton

2. Lynn Washington

3. Reggie Golson (Shimane)

Rookie of the Year

Tatsuhiro Yokoo (Shimane)

Sixth Man Award

I think Sixth Man Award is not for the bj-league because of the second-quarter quota rule (A minimum of three Japanese must be on the floor, as opposed to two the rest of the game).

Coach

1. Kazuo Nakamura

2. Masaya Hirose (Niigata)

3. Ryan Blackwell (Osaka)

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Jeff Newton

2. Jeral Davis (Shimane)

3. Chris Holm

• Longtime observer Masa Iida passed along his thoughts, too:

MVP

Michael Parker. Even though the team is fourth in the West, he has good MVP numbers. Other candidates

Lynn Washington

Mac Hopson

Gary Hamilton

Kazuya Hatano

Rookie of the Year

Takumi Ishizaki. I do not know other rookies, but he’s the only one who started in the All-Star Game.

Sixth Man

Kensuke Tanaka. Great role player.

Coach

Kazuo Nakamura. The team’s 24-2 record is great. Other candidates

Ryan Blackwell and Bob Nash

Defensive Player

Gary Hamilton. Great numbers.

MIP

Kazuya Hatano. He is great. I think he is the only player that can play in the paint. He has been rebounding and scoring and had a great first half at the All-Star Game. I’d give him a push.

• Ryukyu Golden Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson jotted down the following choices:

MVP

1. Lynn Washington

2. Wendell White (Kyoto: reigning league MVP)

3. Mike Bell

4. Wayne Arnold

5. Mikey Marshall

Rookie

Takumi Ishizaki

Sixth Man

David Palmer

Coach

Ryan Blackwell

Defense

Anthony McHenry (Ryukyu)

Most Improved Player

Jun Nakanishi (Fukuoka)

• Shuji Kanazawa, a writer for the Basketballnavi website, handed out his choices:

MVP

Wayne Arnold

Top five candidates

1. Wayne Arnold

2. Lynn Washington

3. Michael Parker

4. Mac Hopson

5. Mikey Marshall Honorable Mention

Takumi Ishizaki

Rookie of the Year*

Lee Hyechoeon

Top three candidates

1. Lee Hyechoeon

2. Makoto Sawaguchi

3. Masaaki Suzuki (Takamatsu)

*For clarification, he adds, non-American player, not former JBL player.

Sixth Man Award

Wayne Arnold

Top three candidates

1. Wayne Arnold

2. Lawrence Blackledge (Osaka)

3. Yu Okada

Most Improved Player

Hiroki Fujita (Miyazaki)

2009-10 stats: 1.6 ppg; 3-point shooting: 24 percent (6-for-25); 2010-11: 5.0 ppg; 3-point shooting: 42.4 percent (28-for-66)

Coach of the Year

Kazuo Nakamura

Defensive Player of the Year

Jeff Newton

Top three candidates

1. Jeff Newton

2. Matt Lottich (Oita)

3. Masahiro Oguchi (Hamamatsu)

• Osaka Evessa booster Shoji Jeff Hoshino offered his thoughts on whom he considers the top five talents in the league without ranking them:

*Takumi Ishizaki. Standard, High-level poker face in good meaning, honorary all-Japan player. He can lead his team, has good body balance, especially driving in.

*Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Kyoto). Same as above and was honorary NBA player. He can make a quick shot . . . and has sharp vision, and also no-look passes.

*Kazuya Hatano. Good muscles and good strong mind against foreigners. I believe his strength shows best in the paint area, including his quick moves.

*Lynn Washington. Powerful, leadership and a hard strong mind. We can respect him and also we can get some power and energy from him.

*Jeremy Tyler (Tokyo). Young and a good body balance, inside and also outside. I can imagine that he will be an NBA player in the near future if he has a defensive mind.

New acquisition: The Happinets have signed veteran Korean forward/center Jung Seyoung to a contract for the remainder of the season, the league announced on Wednesday.

Jung, who turns 30 in March played for Ulsan Mobis and the Seoul SK Knights during his two seasons in the KBL.

Tyler speaks out: In an extended interview on All-Star Sunday in Osaka, Apache forward Jeremy Tyler gave his thoughts on a number of topics, including two of his key mentors, Abdul-Rauf and Tokyo coach Bob Hill.

“Having Mahmoud here has been great,” Tyler said. “I talk to him almost everyday. He’s a guy who knows what the NBA life is all about and he’s given me a lot of good advice.”

He spoke highly of Hill’s impact on his life, too.

“When coach talks, you listen,” Tyler said. “He knows exactly where I want to go and he’s been there before. He’s one of the main reasons I came to Japan, because of him and the organization. In Israel, I feel like I didn’t have a lot of support. The country was great and I really enjoyed it there but I didn’t have an American coach and I didn’t have a lot of older American players that I could talk to.

“Coach has been teaching me the little things and that’s what’s gonna make a difference. He has me focused on things I didn’t do before.”

He understands the difficulty of what he’s up against.

“Every day is a challenge for me,” Tyler said. “I’m trying to transition myself from a high school kid to a professional.

“I’m gonna enter the NBA draft in June so hopefully Coach Hill and my support team, my family can get me ready for that. I’m pretty excited about that, that’s my ultimate goal to play in the NBA but I have a long way to go, a lot of little things to work out to become a good professional, a good man, a good teammate.”

Upcoming games: Following the completion of the Tokyo-Fukuoka showdown on Thursday, the following series are on the docket for the weekend: Osaka vs. Sendai, Shiga vs. Saitama, Akita vs. Ryukyu, Miyazaki vs. Niigata, Shimane vs. Hamamatsu, Takamatsu vs. Kyoto and Oita vs. Toyama.

In the paint: At Yoyogi, the only league facility where a synthetic surface isn’t used — Apache home games are played on wood — a SportCourt ad is prominently displayed near the visitor’s basket. . . . It was rare, indeed for Parker, a do-it-all star, to have zero assists, steals or blocks in the first half, though Tokyo placed extra effort in limiting his effectiveness on the court. . . . The bj-league’s other teams are in action on Saturday and Sunday. The Apache were outscored by a combined 83 points in their first 21 games, a sign for Bob Hill, he admitted, that changes must be made. Tokyo mixed up its starting lineup in game No. 22 and picked up a 20-point win.

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Send e-mail to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp