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Toshiba sharpshooter Tsuji continues rise to prominence

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Toshiba Brave Thunders’ Naoto Tsuji is arguably the most prolific player among the NBL’s sophomore class in the 2013-14 season.

But it’s not because he made a sudden growth in year two. Tsuji quickly came through as a rookie last season playing in the JBL, the NBL’s predecessor.

Tsuji, 24, averaged 11.7 points per game to help the Brave Thunders advance to the JBL Finals as their outside threat.

And early success like that could bring you a tougher challenge, because you get guarded more tightly by your opponents.

But Tsuji makes no excuses. He said that he still has to manage to find a way to score some baskets.

“You’ve still got to make shots against the tougher defense,” said Tsuji, who’s scored 11.1 ppg and ranks second in the league with 48.0 percent shooting from 3-point range this season.

Tsuji said that he’s learned how to score from pick-and-roll plays, so he was able to get some separation from defenders. And he’s especially able to launch 3-pointers, his signature scoring method, with a higher level of confidence.

Tsuji, however, doesn’t want to be a one-dimensional player, being labeled just as a 3-point specialist.

“There are players like (Wakayama Trians’ Takuya) Kawamura and (Aisin SeaHorses’ Kosuke) Kanamaru in the league,” he said. “Observing them, they score so many points from the 2-point area. It makes you a more effective scorer.”

Develop under new circumstances: Veteran player Shohei Kikuchi, who transferred to the Toyota Motors Alvark from Toshiba this past offseason, said that he’s felt so fulfilled to play for the new team.

Nothing to do with his previous club, but Kikuchi said that he’d always wanted to play under a detail-oriented foreign coach like Zeljko Pavlicevic, a former Japan national team head coach who currently serves as head coach for the Wakayama Trians.

His wishes were granted. The 29-year-old versatile bench player received an offer from Toyota, which has an American head coach in Donald Beck.

Kikuchi said that he’s had some brand-new experiences since he began wearing the Alvark jersey.

“I’ve thought that the forward players are lined up horizontally on the floor,” Kikuchi said. “But (Beck) puts them vertically, and that was a new thing to me.”

Learning new things hasn’t been an obstacle but an inspiration for Kikuchi.

“I wouldn’t have been able to change myself had I stayed in the same environments,” he said.

Regrouped: The Trians handed the Brave Thunders their first consecutive losses of the season, 81-77 and 91-88, this past weekend.

It came across as big news in the league since Toshiba had taken just two “Ls” in 26 games before the All-Japan Championship break in early January.

In both contests, Wakayama (20-8) took advantage of the performances of its scoring duo, Michael Parker and Kawamura. Parker scored 25 and 31, respectively, in the two games.

The Western Conference team snapped its three-game losing skid, including two losses against Toyota. So Wakayama resumed the regular season by regrouping, and took an encouraging start to the second half of the season.