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Iwate’s Yonamine never loses track of ultimate goal: winning

The Big Bulls guard, reunited with coach Dai Oketani, has bolstered the club's backcourt with leadership, consistency

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Tsubasa Yonamine doesn’t grab front-page headlines or dominate the highlights segment on TV sports shows. He helps his basketball team achieve success.

Call him one of the bj-league’s unsung heroes.

Since 2006-07, the upstart circuit’s second season, Yonamine has plied his craft for the Oita HeatDevils (2006-09), Ryukyu Golden Kings (2009-13) and Iwate Big Bulls (since the fall). And it’s no coincidence that Yonamine, an Okinawa native, has played under Dai Oketani on all three clubs.

Oketani respects what the 174-cm Yonamine brings to the Big Bulls, a third-year franchise: toughness, quickness, smart, decision-making skills and a never-ending desire to win every game.

Certain players attain a special rapport with certain coaches. That’s the bond that Yonamine and Oketani, in his second season with Iwate, clearly share.

That much is evident watching the men through the years during pre-game warmup drills, team timeouts, post-game banter, including during the Golden Kings’ powerhouse years when Yonamine helped the Kings capture their second title (in May 2012) and compete for one on an annual basis.

Speaking to numerous opposing players and coaches over the years about Yonamine, the consensus is this: He cares about winning and doing his part to contribute to team success. That’s his only agenda, sources have told this reporter repeatedly.

It’s no surprise that Iwate (17-7) is one of the East’s elite teams this season. Adding Yonamine to the mix only strengthens its backcourt and team chemistry. He has also made fellow veteran guard Kenichi Takahashi, who’s averaging 10.4 points per game, with 94 assists against 43 turnovers, more effective.

Yonamine makes very few careless mistakes (4.1 assists per game, seventh-best average in the league, with 98 assists and 37 turnovers in the books), while contributing 5.8 ppg and shooting 40-for-78 from inside the 3-point arc.

Case in point: the 30-year-old Yonamine had 10 assists, zero turnovers and a blocked shot in Iwate’s eight-point win over the Tokyo Cinq Reves on Monday. He doesn’t need to score to make major contributions.

In addition, his assist-to-turnover numbers have always been among the league’s best. Through the 2011-12 season, these were the key numbers: Yonamine had 1,146 assists and 360 turnovers in 279 regular-season games.) And with more of the same this season, that’s certainly played a part in the Big Bulls’ big run of late (13 wins in their past 16 games).

Understanding how Oketani wants the game to be played helps, too.

Going back to their HeatDevils days, here’s how Yonamine summed up Oketani’s approach to the game: The focus, he said, is defense.

“He also asks us to have smart and simple plays. No matter how bad we play, we always start with defense,” Yonamine told The Japan Times in a December 2007 interview. “His philosophy is like, even if you can’t score, you just (don’t) yield to your opponent. And then, you lead it to your offense.”

In describing his own play, Yonamine revealed in that interview that he must rely on hustle and energy to succeed.

“I’m not very tall,” Yonamine said at the time. “So I’d have to say my trait is to play with heart, such as diving for loose balls. I’m asked to exhibit plays that change the flow of a game. That’s something I’d like to show on the court.”

Ex-Kings teammate David Palmer, who now suits up for the Kyoto Hannaryz, recognized Yonamine’s vital importance to the Kings during one of their memorable playoff runs.

“He’s a true leader,” Palmer said of Yonamine in a May 2011 interview with The Japan Times. “I don’t think his true value can be measured by on-court statistics. He’s a quality leader.”

Controversial comments: In a recent Metropolis magazine feature article, NBDL team Tokyo Excellence’s coach, Michael Olson, is profiled. The story was written by former Japan Times sports editor Fred Varcoe and takes a swipe at the 21-team bj-league, which has ushered in a new era of basketball in Japan, creating abundant opportunities for players, coaches and staff since it began in the fall of 2005 with six clubs.

For many years before the bj-league was established, there was little to no growth, with many teams folding in the old JBL and JBL2.

Here’s part of what Varcoe wrote: “The NBDL allows a team to have two (imports) on the court in the first and third quarters, and one in the second and fourth quarters. The (bj-league) allows more because, Olson says, ‘they’re looking more for entertainment. The NBL is real basketball.’ “

Whether intended or not, Olson’s comments ripping the bj-league did not impress several basketball insiders in regular contact with this reporter.

Said one source who requested anonymity: “Excellence (15-1 at press time) has done a nice job this season. Although it helps to have two imports when many teams have one or none in the NBDL.” With a touch of sarcasm, the source added, “And looks like that (nearly empty) gym in the (game) photo was packed. Good thing the NBL is ‘real basketball.’ “

There’s long been discussions about the different approaches taken by the bj-league, which has more than 80 import players and the NBL (and its predecessor, the JBL), and the NBDL (the rebranded JBL2), which has a two-per-team limit.

One longtime bj-league star believes the NBL/NBDL approach, backed by the Japan Basketball Association, the sport’s governing body here, which has been criticized by FIBA for its dysfunctional ways, doesn’t elevate the Japanese game.

In a Wednesday email, he wrote: “I think when you have more foreign players it makes the game stronger and tougher and makes the Japanese get better.”

The misguided label “real basketball” fails to recognize, acknowledge or admit that the two-time champion Ryukyu Golden Kings are an impressive model that other Japanese teams, regardless of which league they play in, should emulate.

And it all starts with smart management and a commitment to excellence. For anyone to say the Golden Kings don’t play “real basketball” is sadly mistaken.

Since the start of the 2008-09 season, their second campaign, the Golden Kings have gone 210-72 in the regular season, winning 74.4 percent of their games in that span. Two former NCAA Final Four participants — big man Jeff Newton (Indiana) and forward Anthony McHenry (Georgia Tech) — guarantee the team will make the necessary sacrifices to win.

The Ryukyu Golden Kings don’t play real basketball?

Oh, really?

Weekly accolade: Edwin Ubiles, a former Washington Wizards player, helped the Kyoto Hannaryz sweep the Bambitious Nara last weekend. For his all-around play, he was chosen as the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, the bj-league announced on Wednesday.

“I am pleased to be honored. I would like to thank everyone — my coach and teammates (for) this award,” Ubiles said in a team-issued statement.

Ubiles, who’s averaging 15.3 points per game, had 15 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in 40 minutes in the Hannaryz’s series opener against Nara last Saturday. He followed that effort with 17 points, four assists and two steals while playing 39 minutes a day later.

Ubiles attended Siena College, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school, which is located in Albany County, New York.

Miffed: Takamatsu’s Dexter Lyons, in his third season in the league, told The Japan Times he’s never been informed how the All-Star selection process works. What’s more, he feels his stellar season — 17.4 ppg (seventh in league), 2.0 steals (tied for third), 85.6 free-throw percentage (ninth), plus 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 24 games — has gone unrecognized.

He’s not happy about either situation.

“First off, I am in a complete charades of how one gets picked as an All-Star in this league,” Lyons stated.

“I normally would not care, but I think when a person is in the league’s top 10 of three different categories and the team is .500 (13-13) and in the top six (in the Western Conference) and, just to throw in some more extra points, leads his team in many categories and does not get picked to be an All-Star but the coach does. … Wow!”

Takamatsu bench boss Kenzo Maeda, in his third season at the helm, is the West’s assistant, serving under Oita’s Yukinori Suzuki for the eight annual contest.

“I am glad and happy for the strides that my coach has to had to overcome, but he would not have gotten to this place if I had not been a part of this ball club. Hats off to Kenzo.”

Regarding Kyoto veteran Hikaru Kusaka’s selection as a starting guard for the West despite averaging 1.7 ppg and being 11th on the Hannaryz in minutes played, Lyons felt the need to speak out.

“I know and understand people have favorites, but some players actually work their tails off to stride at individual accomplishments as making the All-Star team of their respected leagues,” he told The Japan Times. “To have a player that does not contribute to his team and gets selected supposedly on an elite representation of the league’s best halfway through the season on the All Star team is absurd…”

Upcoming schedule: The final weekend before the All-Star Game features the following two-game matchups: Aomori vs. Fukuoka, Sendai vs. Akita, Toyama vs. Shimane, Shinshu vs. Takamatsu, Kyoto vs. Gunma, Osaka vs. Niigata, Oita vs. Iwate and Ryukyu vs. Yokohama.

Transactions: Guard Rintaro Takeda has joined the Shkga Lakestars as an early-entry player, the team announced on Thursday.

The 175-cm guard, who attended Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, will join the Lakestars in February.

Takeda, an Amagasaki High School graduate, said in a news release that he “fulfilled a dream by becoming the Kansai League top scorer.”

Shiga GM/CEO Shinsuke Sakai said he hopes Takeda “can become a force early in the bj-league.”

Burns talk: An offseason eye injury cut short Draelon Burns’ time with the Akita Northern Happinets (he never played a game for the Eastern Conference squad), and he returned to Milwaukee, where the injury took place, to get proper rest and worked himself back into shape.

When his eye had properly healed (including post-surgery rest), Burns joined the Ryukyu Golden Kings and has been a smart pickup, averaging 17.6 points in 14 games, with 58-for-71 free-throw shooting, 62 rebounds, 59 assists and 14 steals while coming off the bench. The West-leading Kings (21-3 overall) are 13-1 since he joined the club.

But, of course, Akita didn’t have to part ways with Burns.

“Akita could have kept Draelon Burns but just felt what was best for the team at the time was to let Draelon go home, have surgery and get healthy,” a longtime league insider told The Japan Times on Thursday morning. “They also felt at the time (that) Richard Roby was a good option.”

Roby, named to the East’s All-Star starting lineup, has been one of the top newcomers in the league this season. He’s fourth overall in scoring (20.2 ppg).

“One thing I can tell you is that Akita handled the release of Draelon Burns in a very professional manner,” the source commented. “I think that we look at the way things are now, it worked out OK for all sides in this case. Akita is very pleased with Roby and Draelon is very happy playing for Okinawa. Who knows, Draelon can potentially meet in the finals against Akita. They don’t play each other in the regular season.”

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