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Aoki continues All-Star streak with seventh selection

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Before the Ryukyu Golden Kings ever played a game and before Okinawa proved to be a terrific location for a Japanese professional basketball team, Cohey Aoki had already established himself as a fan favorite in the bj-league.

The league’s first-ever All-Star Game, held in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, in January 2007, included then-Tokyo Apache guard Aoki. Since then, he’s been the only player in league history to appear in each of the next five showcase games in Niigata; Beppu, Oita Prefecture; Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture; Osaka; and Saitama.

Aoki, now the cornerstone player for the expansion Tokyo Cinq Reves, will make his seventh All-Star assignment — all starts — on Jan. 20 at Ariake Colosseum. He is the highest-scoring Japanese player in the league this season, averaging 14.5 points per game.

And despite his small stature, the 167-cm Aoki’s shooting skills have stood tall. He’s shooting 50.4 percent from inside the 3-point arc and better than 93 percent at the free-throw line. His clutch 3-point shooting remains the stuff of legends, too.

Tokyo coach Motofumi Aoki, who has kept the new club (7-11 through Sunday) within shooting distance of playoff contention, will direct the Eastern Conference club, with Yokohama B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary serving as his bench assistant.

The rest of the East’s starting five includes three-time All-Star guard Takanori Goya (Shinshu Brave Warriors, 10.5 ppg) and first-timers Marquin Chandler (Chiba Jets, 19.4 ppg), Jonathan Jones (Tokyo, 21.3 ppg) and Dillion Sneed (Iwate Big Bulls, 17.5 ppg).

The East’s All-Star backups are guards Shigehiro Taguchi (Akita), Kimitake Sato (Niigata), Masashi Joho (Toyama, a five-time selection), Shingo Okada (Gunma), Takuma Yamashiro (Saitama) and Draelon Burns (Yokohama) and forward Takuya Komoda (Sendai).

For the Western Conference, the starting backcourt features Tsubasa Yonamine (4.9 ppg, 4-to-1 assist/turnover ratio) and Narito Namizato (13.1 ppg) of the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Kings forward Anthony McHenry (15.1 ppg), and Kyoto Hannaryz forward David Palmer (14.9 ppg) and Shimane Susanoo Magic forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano (8.0 ppg and 5.6 rpg in 18 appearances with Oita before joining Shimane recently). The West’s head coach is Ryukyu’s Koto Toyama and Atsushi Kanazawa of the Rizing Fukuoka is his assistant.

The West’s reserves are guards Shinya Ogawa (Shiga), Hiroyuki Kikuchi (Takamatsu), Akitomo Takeno (Fukuoka), Taishiro Shimizu (Oita) and forwards/centers Atsuya Ota (Hamamatsu Higashimikawa), Nathan Walkup (Osaka) and Michael Parker (Shimane).

For the 3-Point Shootout, the contestants are Aoki, Toyama’s Angel Garcia, Iwate’s Kenichi Takahashi, Ogawa, Kyoto’s Yu Okada and Palmer. Aoki is the defending champion.

In the Slam Dunk Contest, the participants are Toyama’s Ira Brown, Tokyo’s Akihito Inoue, Tokyo’s Dennis Carr, Shiga’s Ray Nixon, Osaka’s Yoshihiro Tachibana, a two-time champion, and Miyazaki’s Larriques Cunningham. (Defending champion John “Helicopter” Humphrey of Saitama is sidelined with a back injury.)

Five Arrows talk: Takamatsu (7-11) has already won more than three times as many games as last season, and coach Kenzo Maeda’s club still has 34 contests remaining on its 2012-13 schedule.

Stranger things have happened than a team recovering from a 2-50 season to rebound to respectable form the next campaign, and swingman Dexter Lyons, the Five Arrows’ leading scorer (15.0 ppg) is confident his team is just getting started.

“To me, it is vital and pivotal for everyone to understand their role as a player on this particular team,” Lyons told The Japan Times. “We are a ‘defensive team,’ but with offensive weapons too, and I think that we have to understand we have to be the team to initiate the aggressiveness from the start, or we will continue to fight against ourselves.”

In 18 games, Takamatsu has put 1,346 points on the board and yielded 1,400.

“As this team continues to understand our identity, we have shown to be a good team base unit,” Lyons continued. “No one on this team thinks they are the only star on the team, including me.

“We share the basketball on offense, but some players lack the confidence it takes on an every-game basis. I think that we have to improve on boxing out and rebounding. Too many times I can recall us as a team giving up too many second-chance points causing the other team to push their lead further.”

Despite the fact that Takamatsu has made big strides since last season, Lyons, who’s in his first season with the Shikoku-based club after playing for Miyazaki in 2011-12, realizes the Five Arrows are far from a finished product.

At this point in the season, I am not happy,” he admitted, “but I think we are shocking many clubs with the personnel that we have, being we have some first-timers in the bj-league and that we are inexperienced with our Japanese players.

“We are getting better every day and I see us becoming a talented ball club with the smarts of coach Kenzo.”

To a man, Lyons has a chip on his shoulder as he reflects on the team’s status and its image.

“I don’t like that the league still thinks this is last year’s team that only won two games,” he said bluntly. “And I think the refs are carrying this into this season. Just saying . . . I respect them, but they need to get better or this may cause major problems around this league.”

“I firmly believe that we have not played our best basketball yet, but I will make sure to lead these guys,” the Central Florida product declared.

89ers update: Taking stock of their season to date, Sendai 89ers bench boss Bob Pierce said his team, in a rebuilding mode with seven new players on its opening day roster, needs to employ more physicality on the court, especially in the closing minutes of games.

Speaking after the 89ers’ 79-68 defeat last Friday against the host B-Corsairs, Pierce said his club did not match Yokohama’s physical intensity and strength in the two-game series (both losses for the guests).

“I thought the biggest difference down the stretch was as the game got physical and there were bumps and pushes on every play, we were the ones going like this (backing off) and looking to the referees,” said Pierce after his team dropped its fifth straight game and fell to 5-12.

“And when the game gets physical, if you’re not physical back, you are going to lose and the biggest difference in the last six minutes or so is that we were little kids out there complaining to our mommy to come help us because someone was pushing us around.”

In order to climb in the standings and enter the playoff conversation in the East, the ninth-place 89ers need to become better rebounders, Pierce said, especially “when you are playing to get the key rebounds at the end of the defensive possession.” He added that the team is giving up too many second-chance points.

Furthermore, Sendai’s in-game time management has been inadequate.

Case in point: the series finale against Yokohama.

“We used all of our timeouts, just trying to control the game and avoid turnovers with 4 minutes to go, and I always try to save two or three to the end,” Pierce said. “So the fact that we had to use seven timeouts before the 4-minute mark was a sign that not just the guards but our team is not taking care of the ball and controlling what’s going on, on the court.”

Newcomer T.J. Cummings played his first two games in an 89ers uniform last weekend, and working him into the mix and getting adjusted to his new teammates is a work in progress.

“With T.J. coming on, obviously sometimes the defensive and offensive rotations were off . . . especially when they had to make quick decisions on pick-and-rolls with Draelon (Burns) and Thomas Kennedy,” Pierce said. “Those things in particular are things we have to work on, making sure we are physical on rebounding.”

Burns and Kennedy combined for 36 points in the series opener, followed by 41 a day later.

B-Corsairs banter: Under the steady leadership of second-year sideline supervisor Reggie Geary, the bj-league’s 2011-12 Coach of the Year, Yokohama is among the league’s hottest teams as the year winds down.

Yokohama (12-6) has won four straight, six of its last seven and seven of its last 10.

Strong defense and 3-point shootings are keys to the team’s success.

“I’ve been saying from day one that’s how this team was built,” Geary said last week. “We want to be an up-tempo team. We felt that we had a good core of shooters coming back, and we added some new scorers to the equation. And so we want to spread the floor and do exactly what we are doing right now.

The B-Corsairs are 160-for-419 from beyond the 3-point arc, with Masayuki Kabaya (44-for-96) and Burns (46-for-110) their top two options.

Returning to the Final Four after accomplishing that feat as a first-year franchise remains the top target for Geary’s club.

“I’m excited about where we’re at, but I’m more excited about where we are going because we can play so much better and still have a long way to go in terms of where we eventually want to be,” Geary said.

Pressed for more details, he responded by saying, “What has been the most pleasant revelation has been how this team has found a way to be very, very good defensively, and I think that we’re playing defense at the right time. And for me, as the head coach, the most encouraging thing is defensively we’re really doing some good things.”

To illustrate his point, Geary noted that in the team’s last 16 quarters, or four games, including the Sendai series, his team had only allowed 20 or more points in three quarters.

In related news, the B-Corsairs have added big man Shawn Malloy, a University of New Orleans product, to their roster. The announcement was made on Wednesday.

The 209-cm veteran played for the Iwate Big Bulls last season and averaged 10.5 rebounds (sixth-best total in the league) and 11.2 points per game.

Upcoming games: Weekend action features Akita vs. Saitama, Niigata vs. Gunma, Chiba vs. Yokohama, Tokyo vs. Iwate, Shiga vs. Takamatsu, Osaka vs. Kyoto, Miyazaki vs. Fukuoka, Shimane vs. Oita and Ryukyu vs. Hamamatsu.

Sendai and Shinshu, meanwhile, will renew their rivalry in a series that tips off on Christmas Eve.

Around the league: The Golden Kings (15-3) have lost three straight games. Star forward Anthony McHenry (knee) did not play last weekend, giving his body a chance to rest. . . . The blockbuster Golden Kings-Phoenix matchup this weekend features the teams that have captured the past four league titles. This series marks their first regular-season meeting as Western Conference rivals. Hamamatsu, winners of seven straight, left the Eastern Conference after finishing runnerup to Ryukyu in May’s championship match at Ariake Colosseum. . . .

Gunma opened the season with 12 straight defeats, but has climbed out of the cellar with four wins in its past eight games. Credit coach Ryan Blackwell, who was left to pick up the pieces after original bench boss Tadashi Hayashi, 0-8 in his brief stint in charge, was shown the door in early November following the team’s disastrous start. Floor leader Jermaine Dixon has played an instrumental role in giving the team a better grasp of how to compete in this league. The same can be said for guards Shingo Okada and Kenya Tomori, who, along with Dixon, previously starred for the Phoenix, including on last season’s championship runnerup team.

Weekly accolade: Shimane center Jeral Davis, a 216-cm Talladega State (Alabama) product, had a major influence on the Susanoo Magic’s back-to-back wins over Ryukyu last weekend in Okinawa.

Davis, the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, blocked 12 shots in the series, including eight on Saturday. He also had 22 points and 12 rebounds in the series opener. A day later, Davis scored 20 points, grabbed eight boards and handed out three assists. He is the league’s top shot blocker (3.6 per game) and is on pace to finish atop that category for the third straight season.

On Tuesday, Shimane coach Zeljko Pavlicevic wrote in an email that he’s very pleased with the combined efforts of Davis and Parker in leading the team to a pair of big victories and their role as tone-setters for the squad.

New addition: The Saitama Broncos announced the signing of veteran post player Wayne Oliver on Tuesday.

The 201-cm Oliver, 31, attended Cameron University in Oklahoma before embarking on a career that has included stops in the IBL, ABA, Syria, China and Mexico.

Struggling Akita: The Northern Happinets have dropped six of their last 10 games. They were 7-1 to begin the season, and are now 11-7 and in sixth place — the final playoff spot — in the East, after being in first place a few weeks ago.

Akita brought in 199-cm forward Marshall Brown this week, the latest acquisition by Kazuo Nakamura’s team, which employs a revolving-door policy for import players more so than any other club in the 21-team circuit.

Brown, a Missouri product, began the season with Miyazaki.

The 27-year-old played for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA Development League last season, averaging 10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 41 games (12 starts).

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Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp