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Akita rookie Togashi shows talent, promise right away

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Like any first-year pro, Yuki Togashi must cope with the ups and downs of his new job.

With only four games as a measuring stick, the Akita Northern Happinets guard has shown lots of potential. He has scored in double figures each time out for the Eastern Conference club, beginning with a 15-point, 11-assist, three steal performance on Feb. 2 against the Toyama Grouses.

The 19-year-old Togashi is averaging 14.5 points per game, and had a career-best 19 points against the Gunma Crane Thunders on Sunday. But the Northern Happinets were handed a 72-66 loss, a game in which the 167-cm guard had six assists and seven turnovers. The latter number grabbed his attention, he admitted in a Wednesday phone interview with The Japan Times.

“I am playing good (basketball), but in the past two games I made 12 turnovers, so that’s too much,” Togashi said. “I’ve got to fix that.”

Togashi graduated from Montrose Christian High School in Rockville, Maryland, last May. Now, less than a year after completing his valuable season of academic and athletic preparatory work at the basketball powerhouse school, Togashi is gaining valuable experience in the 21-team bj-league. (Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant and Toyota Motors Alvark guards Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui and Taishi Ito attended Montrose before moving on to Columbia University and University of Portland, respectively.)

Getting major playing time for Akita (17-13), has accelerated his introduction to the job. Togashi has been on the court for all but four minutes of the Happinets’ past four games.

His 3-point shooting (20.8 percent, 5-for-24) can certainly improve, but one encouraging sign is the fact that he’s not afraid to take a shot. He’s converted 54.1 percent of his 2-point attempts.

His assist total has decreased in each of his four games, though, from 11 to nine to eight to six. At the same time, his turnovers have increased, from one in each of his first two contests to five and seven.

Of course, every rookie — and perhaps even more so for one so young — needs to learn how to develop consistency and cut down on mistakes. But coaches around the league have already started paying attention to what Togashi can accomplish on the court — crisp passes, gutsy drives through traffic, spot-up jumpers, among other attributes.

After his team faced Akita last weekend, Gunma coach Ryan Blackwell has a crystal-clear view of Togashi in his mind.

“I was impressed with Togashi,” Blackwell told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He reminds me of (Ryukyu Golden Kings second-year guard Narito) Namizato a little bit. His confidence is up there. He has good speed/quickness and control with his handles. His ability to get to the basket and make plays is a lot better than most of the Japanese players. He finished well in the lane over our bigs, which isn’t seen a whole lot by Japanese players in this league.

“He shot the ball well from the perimeter against us in Sunday’s game, and if he can do that consistently he’ll really be tough to guard. The best thing is he’s young and has loads of potential, and I could tell by the way he’s played he’s been playing in the (United) States.”

Togashi said making smart passes is his constant goal. At the same time, he said, using his quickness for dribble-drive penetration can create scoring opportunities for his teammates.

The diminutive Togashi is the same height as Tokyo Cinq Reves standout Cohey Aoki, who has worked to constantly refine his game and look for ways to excel against bigger foes. Aoki has always talked about winning as objective No.1, and, now in his eighth bj-league season, he’s still vying for his first championship.

Togashi emulates Aoki’s approach to the game.

“I don’t really care about individual stuff, but I just want to win,” said Togashi, whose father is a junior high school basketball coach in Niigata Prefecture.

The Happinets, a third-year franchise, are aiming to reach their first Final Four this spring. In fact, that Togashi’s only focus.

“I want to go to Ariake Colosseum,” he said bluntly, referring to the site of the annual Final Four. “That’s where I want to go.”

Togashi had wanted to play college basketball at a Division I or D-II university in the United States, but didn’t receive a full scholarship offer, so “that’s why I came back to Japan to play.”

But he said his time at Montrose, playing under legendary coach Stu Vetter, was beneficial in preparing him for the rigors of the next phase of his basketball career.

“It was a great experience,” said Togashi, who lists the Lakers’ Steve Nash and the Clippers’ Chris Paul as favorite NBA players. “It was tough . . . because the point guards were good, tall and strong. It was a good challenge and at every practice I had to play hard.”

“Sometimes I didn’t get playing time,” he added. “That’s why I had to work hard and practice and show coach Vetter (my effort) to get to play.”

Togashi’s high-energy style of play and youthful vigor has excited the team’s rabid fan base.

“Togashi-san’s play was very, very exciting,” Happinets supporter Yukie Suzuki wrote in an email after his debut weekend with the team.

“Most of the Happinets fans said they couldn’t take their eyes off his play. He is only 167 cm tall, but he compensates for the disadvantage with his quickness and skillful passing. His play lacks showiness, but he sticks with the basics and he has a good foundation of basketball.”

Vetter, perhaps more than anyone, has a firm grasp of how Togashi’s game has developed to reach this stage of his career.

“Yuki’s a very talented and very skilled basketball player,” Vetter said by phone from Virginia.

Pressed to offer more details, Vetter responded by saying, “He’s very fundamentally sound and knows how to play. Great basketball IQ and he can do a little bit of everything. Good ball handler, shoots the ball well, plays hard defensively. He did a good job for us at Montrose and was certainly a factor in our success.”

Vetter, twice named USA Today’s national coach of the year (1985-86, 1997-98), will use a spread offense that utilizes the skill set of a three-guard lineup. In this setup, Togashi thrived, Vetter recalled. “Yuki was so quick, and in those kind of games, he was very valuable for us,” he added.

And even though Togashi’s time at Montrose was short, he quickly adjusted to his new surroundings on and off the court, Vetter said.

“After the first few months here, he was very comfortable and very likable. A very popular player, all the players liked him and all the teachers liked him.”

In summary, Vetter said Togashi possesses a team-first mentality that will work wherever he plays.

“Yuki sees the floor extremely well and he’s fun to play with, and if you get open, he’ll find you. He’s definitely an outstanding player,” the coach concluded.

Punished: Iwate Big Bulls forward Carlos Dixon was handed a four-game suspension, believed to be the longest in league history for essentially untying Chiba Jets forward Marquin Chandler’s shoe while they waited for a free throw to be taken during the second quarter of Sunday’s in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture.

The game featured physical play on both sides and the incident stunned one longtime league observer.

“Having just watched the game from the beginning until the shoe-untying event, I still have no idea why Carlos did it,” the source said. “But if he is suspended, the referees who allowed the game to continue probably also deserve to be suspended.

“The officials only stopped the game because (Iwate center Dillion) Sneed hurt himself on his dunk, not because Chandler needed to re-tie his shoe.”

Bizarre circumstances, indeed.

Chandler, meanwhile, had to serve a two-game suspension, starting with the series finale on Monday after the Jets had stretched their win streak to nine games on Sunday, and then dropped the finale, which Dixon played in, finishing with 26 points and 13 rebounds.

“I have only watched the shoe-untying moment, and Chandler kicked the panel on the sideline after getting his nose broken by Sneed that resulted in his two-game suspension,” the league insider stated.

“Carlos Dixon’s stunt resulted in a fast break dunk for Iwate,” he continued. “Not sure if it deserved a four-game suspension, but I have heard there was a lot of bad blood between these teams, and that was even before the game started.”

News of Dixon’s suspension was not announced by the league office until Wednesday evening around 9:15 p.m.

It didn’t take several days, however, for the longtime insider to see that the game officials had practically no control over the game.

“I could easily see why Chandler was upset in the fourth quarter, as that was Sneed’s second hard foul on him in about 40 seconds,” the source said.

“I may watch the whole game . . . because the two scenes I watched made me suspect there must have been other plays, and other players who deserve to be suspended. . .”

Iwate’s brand of basketball has crossed the line of clean, but hard-nosed play, the observer said.

“Iwate has been very physical all season, but there have also been a lot of plays that are borderline ‘dirty’ or just unsportsmanlike,” he said. “Much of it is just taking advantage of the referees who won’t call holding, delay of game, elbows away from the ball, things they don’t see or choose to ignore.

“So I’m sure many Iwate players would just say they’re only doing what the referees let them get away with. (Iwate bench boss) Dai Oketani either encourages this kind of play, looks the other way, or the third possibility is that the ‘inmates are running the asylum.’ ”

Analyzing more details of the game, here’s what the insider saw, in his own words:

“Near the end of the third quarter, the game is very testy, especially between Sneed and (Chiba’s Joe) Werner. Hard fouls.

“A foul by Sneed on a Japanese player at the 1:24 mark probably should have been an intentional foul, almost flagrant. Called as a regular shooting foul.

“The the foul by Sneed on Chandler in the fourth quarter right before the broken-nose-kick-the-panel play looked like an accident, he didn’t know where Chandler was, but caught him hard on the back of the head. The broken-nose-kick-the-panel play looked like Chandler was going to try to block a shot/dunk attempt by Sneed, and Sneed caught him in the face with an elbow as he was bringing the ball up. Not sure that could have been avoided.

“Looked like there was a lot of complaining to the officials throughout the game. Probably a lot of trash talking going on, which only serves to escalate the situation.”

And then a statement was issued to The Japan Times that is a very poignant analysis of one of the league’s biggest shortcomings.

“With almost no American referees anymore, trash talk can go unchecked in many games,” the insider declared.

“Watching this one, some of the fouls/plays needed a yellow card/red card system like in soccer,” he added. “Maybe a penalty box as well. Not sure the level of officiating can deal with these kinds of physical teams/players.

“Overall, it just looked like a game where players were being as physical as the referees allowed. And as happens too often they let things get a bit out of hand.

“Whatever inspired Carlos was probably something said or done beforehand, but who knows what. But it did lead directly to two points, indirectly to two more. So Iwate benefitted from his actions. Certainly something that needed to be punished. I didn’t see much between him and Chandler other than one or two fouls earlier.”

Upcoming games: Twenty teams are in action this weekend with the following matchups on the docket: Iwate vs. Niigata, Akita vs. Sendai, Toyama vs. Chiba, Shinshu vs. Yokohama, Saitama vs. Gunma, Shiga vs. Kyoto, Osaka vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa, Shimane vs. Ryukyu, Fukuoka vs. Oita and Miyazaki vs. Takamatsu.

Tokyo has the weekend off.

Player moves: The Shinshu Brave Warriors signed veteran center/power forward Eric Walton, the team announced on Wednesday.

Swingman D’Mario Curry, who averaged 8.6 points in 32 games, has left the team.

The 204-cm Walton played for the Ryukyu Golden Kings during their inaugural season in 2007-08 and also suited up for the Osaka Evessa the next season.

Walton, 33, is a San Jose State product.

Weekly accolade: Osaka Evessa guard Shun Watanuki helped lead coach Bill Cartwright’s club to a pair of home wins over the Oita HeatDevils. Watanuki is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, contributing 22 points and three assists and 12 and five on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Watanuki’s 22-point total, which included an 8-for-9 effort at the foul line, was his second-best effort of the season. Watanuki is averaging 7.3 points in 30 games.

FYI: Follow Osaka Evessa head coach Bill Cartwright on Twitter: @Cartwright_Bill

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