/

Talented guard Gardener reunites with Nakamura

by Ed Odeven

The Akita Northern Happinets have secured the services of explosive lead guard Michael Gardener for the 2011-12 season. The bj-league club made the announcement on Monday.

Gardener, who turns 30, on Saturday, played in Germany’s second-tier ProA league last season, seeing limiting time with Cuxhaven (three games, 16.0 points per game). Japan national team guard Takumi Ishizaki left the Shimane Susanoo Magic and has moved on to play for Cuxhaven’s league rival, BV Chemnitz 99, for 2011-12.

Gardener has previously suited up for the Takamatsu Five Arrows (2009-10), Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (2008-09) and Rizing Fukuoka (2007-08). He helped the Phoenix win their first Eastern Conference regular-season crown, but the team, which also included 236-cm center Sun Ming Ming, lost to the Tokyo Apache in the Final Four in May 2009.

Now, Gardener will join forces with ex-Hamamatsu coach Kazuo Nakamura, who led the team to titles in each of the past two seasons, before stepping down to become the Happinets’ second coach. Akita joined the bj-league last fall and went 18-32 in its inaugural season.

He’s been assigned jersey No. 55 for Akita.

The 182-cm Gardener, a Southeastern Louisiana product, has called Hall of Famer guard Isiah Thomas, another little guy who did it all on the court, his favorite player.

Playing for the undermanned Five Arrows, Gardener was sixth in the league in scoring (21.2) and first in assists (7.0). In 2008-09, he helped the Phoenix amass win after win. Gardener was the league’s No. 3 scorer at 25.5 points per game, while finishing first in assists (6.75) and second in steals (2.3). He averaged 18.4 ppg for the Rizing in their inaugural season, as John Neumann’s squad made major strides in the season’s second half and scored a major upset on the road over heavily favored Takamatsu in the first round of the playoffs.

By all accounts, Gardener is one of the best all-around guards in bj-league history.

Also Monday, the Happinets signed former Colorado University forward Casey Crawford.

The 206-cm Crawford played in England and for the IBL’s Edmonton Energy last season.

While in England, he had a nine-game stint with the Coventry Crusaders before the team folded due to financial problems. But his offensive numbers grabbed people’s attention: 25.8 points, 51.6 percent on 3-point shooting, as well as 10 rebounds per game.

For Edmonton, Crawford scored 13.2 ppg, grabbed 5.5 rebounds and made more than 60 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point arc in18 games.

Crawford appears to be a good fit for fiery leader Nakamura’s run-and-gun offense, which places a great emphasis on 3-point shooting.

To wit: “He would be the first guy you’d choose for a game of H-O-R-S-E … ,” noted the Denver Post’s Tom Kensler in a March 2010 article.

Crawford began his college career at Wake Forest in 2006-07, then transferred to Colorado, where he had to sit out a year due to NCAA regulations.

His father, Steve, was a right-handed pitcher in the major leagues from 1980-91, making 277 starts for the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals in that span.