/ |

Kusaka’s All-Star selection a disservice to more deserving

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Being picked as an All-Star starter should be reserved for players having All-Star-caliber seasons.

Sure, the popularity of a player factors into the equation, but there’s no legitimate reason for a player who has basically become an afterthought to be named an All-Star starter.

Unfortunately, bj-league fans ignored all of the common sense cited above by choosing Kyoto Hannaryz guard Hikaru Kusaka for the upcoming All-Star Game.

It was the wrong decision, an awful decision.

This cheapens the honor and makes a mockery of the selection process. It establishes a ridiculous precedent that’s likely to be repeated in future seasons. It’s a gimmicky selection that defies logic.

Which is why Kusaka, who’s averaging 1.7 points per game, has no business being the top vote-getter among Western Conference guards this season for the Jan. 26 All-Star Game in Akita, which isn’t his hometown. (He hails from Miyagi Prefecture, so the excuse of selecting the local favorite isn’t a factor.)

Name recognition alone — Kusaka has played in the bj-league since its inception in 2005, and moved from the Sendai 89ers to the Kyoto Hannaryz during the offseason to reunite with his former Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi — shouldn’t be enough to land a guy a starting spot as an All-Star starter in the 21-team league.

Consistent on-court productivity should be the decisive factor — but it was conveniently ignored by the 34,710 votes that went for Kusaka.

Even so consider the facts:

■ Kusaka is 11th on his team in minutes played (216).

■ He’s averaging less than two shots per game.

■ He’s shooting less than 33 percent from the field (14-for-47).

■ He’s attempted only six free throws past the season’s midway point.

■ He’s taken five or more shots in just two games.

■ He has 18 assists, less than a 1.0 average.

■ His season-high 10-point game came in a 105-62 shellacking of the Tokyo Cinq Reves on Dec. 22, a game in which Hamaguchi went to his bench early and often and used 13 players. (No Hannaryz player saw more than 27 minutes of court time in the blowout.)

Let’s recap: None of Kusaka’s stats have made a key impact for his team.

Scoring points is not the ultimate — or only — criteria that makes a player deserving of an All-Star spot, but almost never scoring should persuade voters to select somebody else. (As one Western Conference player told me recently in an email: “I am compiling a story about this terrible All-Star voting.” My reaction? I look forward to reading it.)

Looking at statistics of all Western Conference players through Tuesday, here’s some intriguing points-per-game breakdown: 33 guys are averaging 10 or more points and 33 guys (not a typo) are scoring between 5.0 and 9.9. All 66 men have made much greater contributions than Kusaka this season.

That isn’t to say, of course, that the 31-year-old Kusaka is a social outcast or a dirty, rotten scoundrel. In fact, he’s one of the most likable, upbeat, unselfish players in league history. He’s also been a pleasure to converse with during media sessions.

The facts just mentioned helped him earn three previous All-Star selections (2006-07, 2007-08 and 2009-10). But his statistics, especially his scoring ability, have been in decline for several years. After averaging a career-best 7.8 ppg in 2006-07, he averaged 5.2 in 2007-08, then 3.8 in 2009-10, then 2.4 in 2012-13, to now being, well, the last option as a scorer.

But the Hannaryz (18-10) do not need him to fill the role of a scorer. Instead, he can impart wisdom to the team’s younger players about certain opponent’s tendencies or dish out input to Hamaguchi for scouting reports.

One opposing coach thinks intangibles bring out the best in Kusaka’s game, saying, “He can’t score much, but he has an invisible power.”

Others hold a much different view.

“I’m pretty sure Hikaru understands he shouldn’t be selected as an All-Star,” Ryan Blackwell, a former Osaka Evessa and Gunma Crane Thunders head coach, told Hoop Scoop.

In the 2006-07 season, Blackwell, then a standout forward for the 89ers was snubbed by All-Star voters, the fans, when his cerebral all-around play and 21.1 ppg were overlooked. There were only eight teams at the time, so the choice of picking top players for the starting spots might have been a bit easier, but there’s always someone who gets left out.

Even so, Blackwell understands how absurd it is that Kusaka was far and away the top vote-getter during a season when he rarely plays quality minutes or makes significant contributions.

Cohey Aoki of the Rizing Fukuoka, the only eight-time All-Star in league history, was second among West guards (23,737).

Said Blackwell: “(Kusaka) is my former teammate and I respect him as much as anybody but that’s a joke and disrespectful to a lot of deserving players.”

Despite his impressive numbers in 2006-07, Blackwell recalled, “I learned that lesson my first season in Sendai when I was leading the team in almost every statistical category but (teammate) Mamadou Diouf was chosen because he was a fan favorite.”

Diouf was averaging 16.4 ppg and had 13 double-doubles before the inaugural All-Star Game in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

Kusaka’s selection “really discredits the meaning of All-Star,” said Blackwell, who was fired by Gunma in December.

“Even Kobe Bryant has stated he shouldn’t be selected to the (upcoming) NBA All-Star Game because there are more deserving players.”

Would Kusaka issue a similar statement?

Would anyone from the Kyoto front office or league staff suggest that he does?

I doubt it, but it would be the proper thing to do.

There are numerous other players who deserve a chance to start in the Western Conference backcourt, including: Oita’s Taishiro Shimizu, named an All-Star reserve by league officials, who’s averaging 14.1 ppg, is third in the league in minutes played (962) and has drilled 48 more 3s than Kusaka, and his HeatDevil teammate Verdell Jones III (who wasn’t selected), who’s 17.3 ppg and 4.9 apg are both among the top 10 in the league.

Other worthy backcourt starters include: Takamatsu swingman Dexter Lyons (not named a reserve), a 17.4 ppg scorer who has led his team’s rise to respectability after a 2-50 campaign in 2011-12, the season before his arrival in Shikoku; Hamamatsu’s Aki Chambers (not picked as reserve), a rookie averaging 10.7 ppg with 42 steals; Hamamatsu’s Jermaine Dixon (not a reserve), a 13.0 ppg scorer and gifted playmaker; and Shiga’s Brandon Fields (not a reserve), who’s putting 14.1 ppg on the board.

“At least Taishiro is on the team,” said Bob Pierce, who previously coached Sendai, Akita and Shiga. “Some good foreign players will always be left out because they dominate the stats, but only a few can be selected. But really no excuse to leave off Japanese players who are putting up good numbers.

“By not having any standards at all, the voting always seems to reflect popularity or name recognition over actual accomplishments, but this may be the worst case in the history of All-Star voting.”

Pierce added: “Basically this is a ‘lifetime achievement award’ that has little to do with his play this season. But it’s still sad when more deserving players are left off and thus don’t receive the recognition they deserve.

“The bj-league gets little respect from outside, but it’s sad when the league and the fans don’t respect the players in the league who have earned it.”

The league has failed to properly educate fans about top stars. It has also done an abysmal job taking the All-Star voting process seriously.

Shame on commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and his cronies for allowing this farce to occur. They can overrule the fans, but it takes guts to do so.

Their lack of leadership on this issue is sickening, but not entirely unexpected in a league that bungles operations every step of the way.