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Iwate’s Blackledge thriving as important contributor

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Blessed with a 218-cm wingspan and a motor that’s always ticking, forward Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge is a game-changing presence for the Iwate Big Bulls.

And when the Marquette University product is on top of his game, the Big Bulls (6-4) reap the rewards.

The following statistics illustrate his value — and importance — to the team. In their six victories, he’s averaging 14.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.6 blocks and 2.3 steals a game.

But those numbers don’t tell the entire story. Blackledge is all over the place, especially on defense, with his long arms disrupting opposing offenses. On offense, he’s a skillful finisher on putbacks, jams and a variety of in-the-paint shots, but also steps back for the occasional jumper to keep foes honest.

Which is exactly what Iwate coach Dai Oketani wants him to do. And what he hopes to accomplish.

“On defense I think I resemble (Brooklyn’s) Andrei Kirilenko when he was in his prime in Utah,” Blackledge told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “Not a superstar player, but (he) was a great defender and did a lot of small things that you don’t see in the stat sheet for his team.”

Who else does he admire?

“The player I tried to base my game from is (Brooklyn’s) Kevin Garnett growing up. I loved his attitude and the energy that he played with. That’s why I wear No. 21.”

When then-Marquette coach Tom Crean signed Blackledge to a national letter of intent in May 2006 after he played for two seasons at Southwestern Illinois College, he made the following revealing comments that defined the 207-cm forward’s style of play and character:

“Trend is a great athlete who is long, lean and can really run. We were impressed with how hard and unselfishly he plays. You want to build a team through defense and rebounding, and Trend will help us in those areas.

“Trend was undervalued during the recruiting process but he is a winner, his team’s records prove that. His attitude and willingness to improve are key attributes to his success.”

Crean departed Marquette in 2008 to take the high-profile coaching job at Indiana University. Blackledge’s college career ended that year, too.

In a 2011 interview with The Japan Times, league legend Lynn Washington, Blackledge’s then-teammate on the Osaka Evessa, explained why the big fellow was such a key player for the Western Conference powerhouse.

“Lawrence is one of the best all-around defenders in the league,” Washington told The Japan Times. “He reminds me of (Los Angeles) Laker great Michael Cooper. He can nail the 3-point shot as well. He’s really a true talent.”

“Our team as a whole follows what Lawrence brings to this team on defense,” Washington said at the time. “He’s very vocal, young and springy. (Then-Osaka coach) Ryan (Blackwell) and I are very excited to have him as the anchor of our defense.”

Now, a few days shy of his 28th birthday, Blackledge has grown in stature and confidence as one of the premier all-around frontcourt players in the league, but he’s not camped out on the 3-point arc, having only attempted eight 3s in the first 10 games. Instead, he’s busy making passes, setting picks, crashing the boards, throwing down dunks and knocking down 51.5 percent of his 2-point shots with an improved mid-ranged jumper. Plus, he plays tenacious defense.

This season, the Carbondale, Illinois, native has had games where it seems like every recorded statistic was written next to his No. 21 on the box score in a nice, neat horizontal row — exhibit A: Nov. 1 against Yokohama, when he had 21 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks, five steals and four assists in a Big Bulls victory.

All told, he’s averaging 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.5 steals (tied for third in the league) and 2.1 blocks (also tied for third), the latter numbers a reminder of what he once told reporters while at Marquette.

“I’m a shot blocker. I can alter some shots and I can make people think twice about coming into the lane,” he revealed, according to MarquetteHoops.com.

The Big Bulls also have a solid nucleus which includes big man Gyno Pomare (13.7 ppg), forward Josh Peppers (13.8) and guard Kenichi Takahashi (10.5). In his second year on the club, Masato Tsukino is an important contributor in the backcourt along with Tsubasa Yonamine, who played under Oketani at Ryukyu and Oita. Newcomer Scootie Randall left Ryukyu last week, but chipped in right away with big numbers in his first weekend in a Big Bulls uniform, scoring 25 and 12 points in a sweep over Osaka.

Major loss: For Shimane, how big of a loss was forward Michael Parker’s departure in the offseason?

Consider the team’s current record (1-9) and look at what the veteran is doing for the NBL’s Wakayama Trians (8-4). Parker is in the NBL’s top five in five categories: steals (1.8 per game, first), scoring (23.4, third), rebounds (11.4, fourth), field-goal percentage (60 percent, fourth) and blocked shots (1.9, fourth).

That productivity can quickly make the difference between a triumph or a defeat.

Upcoming games: Nara vs. Takamatsu is the one weekend series to tip off on Friday. Starting a day later, here are the other two-game sets: Aomori vs. Toyama, Iwate vs. Akita, Sendai vs. Tokyo, Saitama vs. Shinshu, Yokohama vs. Gunma, Shiga vs. Niigata, Kyoto vs. Osaka, Fukuoka vs. Oita and Ryukyu vs. Shimane.

Did you know?: Akita forward Richard Roby’s older half-brother is New York Knicks macho forward Kenyon Martin.

Roby, a University of Colorado product, is the league’s fourth-leading scorer (20.1 ppg) in his first season in Japan.

Impressive: Toyama’s Masashi Joho remains the league’s top Japanese scorer (18.1 ppg), netting 21 or more points in six of 10 games for the Grouses (9-1). In six of 10 games, he’s also attempted seven or more free throws, a reminder that he’s a featured scorer in coach Bob Nash’s system.

Tyler update: Former Tokyo Apache big man Jeremy Tyler may return to the New York Knicks next month, the New York Post has reported.

Knicks center Tyson Chander’s knee injury leaves a big hole in coach Mike Woodson’s frontline rotation.

Tyler had foot surgery in early September and was released by New York before the NBA season tipped off.

The Santa Cruz Warriors had owned Tyler’s NBA Development League rights until the Erie BayHawks purchased those rights last week. This means that Tyler can train at Erie’s team facilities, the Post reported.

“I think we got to keep an eye on him,” Woodson told the Post, referring to Tyler.

He added: “I think that we rehab him and keep close tabs on him. If he comes along nicely, who knows, he could be wearing a Knick uniform. We just got to wait the course.”

Tyler, 22, played for the now-defunct Apache in 2010-11. He played in 63 NBA regular-season games over the past two seasons for the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks.

Odd scheduling: Akita, an established team with a strong fan base, played eight of its first 12 games at home to kick off the season. On the other hand, Nara, a first-year franchise trying to establish the same support in its home prefecture, played eight of its first 10 games on the road.

It’s the notion here the league office should never have authorized a schedule with such a lopsided portion of road contests for an expansion team to start the season.

Call it poor planning.

Attendance figures: Which teams are attracting the biggest home crowds? Which teams are struggling to do so?

These are the latest figures (through Sunday) released by the league for average home attendance. Top five: Niigata (3,037 per game), Ryukyu (2,884), Akita (2,637), Sendai (1,855) and Nara (1,808); bottom five: Fukuoka (1,100), Iwate (990), Yokohama (989), Oita (940) and Kyoto (875).

Noteworthy: Ex-Chiba Jets, Tokyo Apache and Osaka Evessa forward Tomoya “Chomo” Nakamura was named a Western Conference starter for the NBL All-Star Game in late December. Nakamura now plays for the Tsukuba Robots. He’s averaging 3.1 points and 1.7 rebounds and 12.6 minutes in 14 games. His Robots teammates include former bj-league guards Satoshi Takeda (Osaka, Takamatsu) and Kazuyuki Nakagawa (Fukuoka, Takamatsu), the latter of whom is the team’s leader in assists at 3.4 per game.

Parker was selected as a West reserve. . . .

Former Shimane coach Zeljko Pavlicevic’s long-term impact as a develop of top-level Japanese talent is on full display this season in the NBL. His time as Japan national team head coach (2003-06, including the ’06 FIBA World Basketball Championship) helped improve the skills of six men selected as All-Star starters.

For the East, the Pavlicevic pupils are guard Ryota Sakurai (Hokkaido) and guard/forward Takehiko Orimo (Hokkaido), power forward Joji Takeuchi (Hitachi) and center Kosuke Takeuchi (Toyota) and West guard Kei Igarashi (Mitsubishi) and Takuya Kawamura (Wakayama).

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