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Ashby pivotal player in Fukuoka’s quest for Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Julius Ashby is hungry to win a championship.

One of the elite big men in the bj-league’s eight-season history, Ashby has been a valuable pivotman for four franchises that have reached the postseason: Takamatsu Five Arrows (2006-07, championship runnerup), Tokyo Apache (2008-09 and 2009-10, two runnerup finishes), Niigata Albirex BB (2010-11, Final Four) and Shiga Lakestars (last season).

But the championship hardware has eluded him during his long career in Japan, which was interrupted by a one-year stint in the NBA Development League.

Ashby doesn’t consider his production exceptional this season — “I should’ve done better” — but insists he only has his eyes on the ultimate prize. “The mission is a title. Everybody’s mission is the same thing,” Ashby said on Sunday after the Rizing completed a two-game sweep over the host Yokohama B-Corsairs (30-14).

“I would love to get there (Ariake Colosseum). Who knows what will happen, but I’m going to try my best to get there every single time I step on the court. That’s my goal. I need one.

“I just want us to win, and I’m trying my best to contribute whatever I can,” he added.

Now, reunited with fiery power forward Reggie Warren, his former Five Arrows teammate, Fukuoka (30-16 at week’s end) has one of the top frontcourt combinations in the league. The men are older, wiser, more experienced basketball players at this stage of their careers, with Ashby now 30 years old and Warren 32.

“A lot of times it seems like the team feeds off of us, because it makes the game just easy for our outside players,” Ashby said. “And when we are playing together, it just makes the game easier for us.”

Case in point: Akitomo Takeno scored 20 points in Fukuoka’s 106-97 overtime triumph on Saturday, including a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and 11 points in the bonus period.

Furthermore, a day later, Warren and Ashby commanded attention from Yokohama defenders, which helped free up Masahiro Kano on the perimeter, and he buried 4 of 6 shots, including both 3-pointers, in a 12-point effort.

“We’ve got to take the initiative as the foreigners carry the team, but on our team it’s not just us, the Japanese players can play. It all goes hand in hand,” said Ashby, a University of Colorado product.

“One day it might be us, one day it might be them; we’ve got to play off them. . . ”

The Rizing have quietly been building a championship-caliber team this season. They are tied with the Shimane Susanoo Magic for the second-best record in the Western Conference.

They have scored a league-high 3,888 points to date. And they feature five veterans averaging nearly 10 points per game or more: guards Jun Nakanishi (9.8) and Takeno (10.3) and forwards Ashby (14.3), Josh Peppers (16.6) and Reggie Warren (16.8).

Whatever Fukuoka bench boss Atsushi Kanazawa, in his first full season at the helm, is doing, it’s working to keep the Rizing in the title hunt.

“We have a lot of veterans, but at the end of the day, the coach has to (get recognition),” Ashby said. “If we were losing, he would get the blame. So if we’re winning, it’s only fair that he gets the praise.”

One impressive measure of the team’s veteran smarts is this: Fukuoka has 220 more assists than turnovers to date.

To close out the regular season, the Rizing play host to the Western Conference-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings (35-9) this weekend, followed by an away series against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (25-19) on April 13-14.

After a bye week, Fukuoka finishes the season on April 27-28 against the visiting Iwate Big Bulls (28-16).

“Every game from here on out is going to be tough,” Ashby, “so we are just trying to fight through it and get as best a playoff seeding as we can.

“We can’t really cry about the games we lost or what position we’re in. With eight more games in the season, we can’t really think about the past.”

But Ashby was willing to admit that beating the B-Corsairs, a Final Four participant last season, on consecutive days was “one of the best” series of the season for his club.

“Most of all, it’s just coach has been preaching playing for 40 minutes, and sometimes we have stretches where we are not (focused),” he said on Sunday. “But today, we really did a good job on defense and offense, and we just ground it out all game.”

Ashby, a three-time All-Star, is confident he has secured a spot in league annals as one of its premier big men.

“But I’m not satisfied because I don’t have a championship,” the native of Trinidad and Tobago said.

In his own words, what has made him a dominant player? “The consistency, the numbers, the attention I get. . . . Every time I touch the ball,” he said, “double teams are (there).”

Newton update: Jeff Newton, the Ryukyu post player and league legend, is recovering from knee surgery to repair an injured left meniscus, the team has announced.

The team estimated he’ll be sidelined for a month.

Surgery was performed on March 26.

Newton sustained the injury on March 20 at practice in Okinawa.

“He’s walking unaided. (He) has minimal swelling since surgery,” a team source told The Japan Times. “He’ll be back in time for the playoffs.”

Newton helped Ryukyu capture its second title last May.

Weekend schedule: In addition to the aforementioned Fukuoka-Ryukyu series, the following matchups are scheduled: Niigata vs. Hamamatsu, Gunma vs. Saitama, Chiba vs. Toyama, Tokyo vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Sendai, Osaka vs. Akita, Shimane vs. Iwate, Takamatsu vs. Yokohama and Oita vs. Miyazaki.

Around the league: Fukuoka’s Warren is the league leader in double-doubles (37), Chiba’s Joe Werner has 28, Niigata’s Chris Holm and Tokyo’s Jonathan Jones have 27 apiece, Osaka’s Mike Bell and Rick Rickert and Shimane’s Michael Parker all have 24, and Kyoto’s Marcus Cousin has 23. …

Akita is 3-7 in its last 10 games, and Toyo has dropped five straight and seven of 10. ..

The current top 12 Japanese scorers are Saitama’s Yuki Kitamuki (15.0 points per game), Tokyo’s Cohey Aoki (14.1), Toyama’s Masashi Joho (14.0), Akita’s Yuki Togashi (13.8) Oita’s Taishiro Shimizu (13.7), Yokohama’s Masayuki Kabaya (12.5), Niigata’s Kimitake Sato (12.4), Miyazaki’s Yuto Otsuka (12.1), Ryukyu’s Narito Namizato (12.0), Niigata’s Yuichi Ikeda (11.8), Kyoto’s Yu Okada (10.9) and Shinshu’s Takanori Goya (10.7).

Kitamuki has been a high volume shooter this season, attempting 354 3s (116 makes) and 365 2-pointers (130 baskets) in 44 games. Overall, he’s shooting 34.2 percent from the field.

Quotable: “He is more than just a legend not only in the bj-league but in japan. He has played for so long and so strong. He is a true ambassador to Japanese basketball. I hope that he stays in the sport in some form when he is done playing.” — Shimane forward Michael Parker, reflecting on Akita guard Makoto Hasegawa’s career. The 42-year-old Hasegawa announced earlier this week he’ll retire at the end of the season.

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