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Toyama’s Joho named league MVP

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Shooting guard Masashi Joho and forward Ira Brown form a dynamic one-two punch for the Toyama Grouses, a partnership that has helped the Hokuriku-based team make significant improvements — notably a steady increase in wins — in each of their three seasons together.

Here’s a quick snapshot of their profound impact: Toyama capped a sensational regular season with 11 straight victories and 15 wins in its past 16 games. The Grouses finished 42-10, including a league-best 22-4 road record, to capture the Eastern Conference’s regular-season title for the first time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

On Wednesday, Joho, a Hokkaido native, became the first Japanese player in the bj-league’s nine-season history to be named regular-season MVP. Joho averaged a career-high 17.4 points per game, No. 8 overall in the league. He also placed in the top 10 in minutes played (1,739, No. 8) with a nonstop hustle and determination to excel while also exhibiting a joie de vivre on the court that’s contagious for his teammates.

Never afraid or unwilling to take a difficult shot, Joho’s all-around game has also continued to mature and flourish under second-year Toyama head coach Bob Nash, a former NBA forward. The 32-year-old Joho had team-high totals in assists (193, 3.7 per game) and 3-pointers (107) plus 68 steals while appearing in all 52 games.

In addition to his MVP honor, Joho made the league’s annual Best Five Team for the second time. He was also selected in 2011-12 after averaging 15.3 ppg for the Grouses.

Joining Joho on the all-league team are Brown (16.8 ppg, 10.0 rebounds per game, 81 steals, 52 blocks), Rizing Fukuoka forward Reggie Warren (16.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, fourth-best output in the league; only once went more than two games without a double-double — a three-game stretch), Ryukyu Golden Kings forward and three-time selection Anthony McHenry (13.3 ppg, team leader in assists, steals and blocks, and tied for 10th-best average in the league in the latter two categories), and Akita Northern Happinets point guard Yuki Togashi (15.6 ppg, a league-high 1,895 minutes and league-best 7.9 assists per game).

The 20-year-old Togashi, the All-Star Game MVP in January, became the youngest player in league history to earn a spot on the annual Best Five team, whose votes are cast by players, head coaches and commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi.

This season also marked the second time two Japanese were selected for the Best Five Team. (Players and coaches cannot vote for individuals on their own team. Votes are not released to the media.)

The Western Conference’s regular-season champion Golden Kings set a league record for wins for the second straight season, going 43-9 under first-year bench boss Tsutomu Isa, who had previously been an assistant on the team since its inception in 2008. Isa is the 2013-14 Coach of the Year.

The Okinawan powerhouse allowed the fewest points (3,561) in the 21-team circuit.

In English and Japanese, Joho thanked his legion of fans in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

“I’m so happy,” he wrote. “I’m grateful to all of the people who support me.”

Tokyo Cinq Reves guard Yuji Ide, who was second overall in minutes played (1,884) and averaged 15.0 ppg, was named the league’s Most Improved Player. He contributed 124 3s, 178 assists and 71 steals for the capital city franchise.

The Sixth Man Award was presented to Akita forward Richard Roby, who came off the bench in 45 of 50 games, averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals for the Happinets (40-12).

Ryukyu guard Ryuichi Kishimoto, who started 46 of 47 games as a 23-year-old pro, scooped up the Rookie of the Year Award.

He scored 11.3 ppg, knocked down 102 3-pointers and converted 100 of 113 free throws. Blessed with a smooth-shooting stroke, the Okinawan is one of the most promising young stars in the league.

League rules allow second-year players who made their debuts the previous seasons under the “early challenge” system to be eligible for the rookie accolade. Kishimoto falls under this category, appearing in 23 games last season.

Nash, a former University of Hawaii head coach, paid tribute to Joho and Brown.

“I’m very proud of the leadership and efforts that both Ira and Joho have demonstrated all season,” Nash told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “To be recognized by the bj-league coaches and their peers speaks volumes for what they mean to our team’s success. But beyond their individual accolades they are great people who embrace the team concept and give credit to their teammates for the recognition they have received.

“It is so fitting and I couldn’t be prouder that our co-captains Ira and Joho are recognized for their leadership and exemplary play, something they have displayed from the day training camp began.”

This season, Joho averaged in double digits in scoring for the sixth straight season. He has also kept a streak alive that is indeed special, helping his team secure a playoff berth for the ninth consecutive season. He played for the title-winning Osaka Evessa teams in 2005-06 and 2006-07, then sparked the Tokyo Apache on championship runnerup teams in 2007-08 and 2008-09 before moving on to the Shiga Lakestars, who experienced their first playoff appearance in 2009-10, and repeated that feat in Joho’s second season there. He then brought his wide range of skills to Toyama, which had never come close to a .500 season in its first five seasons. That all began to change in 2011-12, when the Grouses posted a 25-27 record and squeaked into the playoffs.

Recognizing the significance of the aforementioned feats, Nash said “the 2013-2014 season, in my estimation, has been a ‘breakout season’ for Joho, accomplishing 5,000 points, having played in over 400 games, reaching 500 steals and (placing) in the top 10 in scoring. He has improved his game in all phases — scoring, assists, steals — and it is a testament to his hard work, determination and diligence. We are proud of the fact that he has been recognized among the elite as MVP of the bj-league.”

Among the league’s Japanese players, only six-time All-Star Joho and eight-time All-Star Cohey Aoki of the Rizing Fukuoka have reached 5,000 career points.

Brown was a minor league baseball pitcher coming out of high school in Texas, spending five years on the diamond. He eventually wound up at hoops hotbed Gonzaga University, and the rest is history. He plays an intense, high-energy game, but channels his energy into his team’s Xs and Os. Case in point: zero technical fouls in 1,780 minutes.

“It is a great honor, of course, to be named top in the league,” Brown told this newspaper. “Honestly, I would not have been able to do it without my head coach, Bob Nash,  as well as my team. Many of our players deserve to be in the top, but unfortunately a few are chosen.

“I know and understand there are many good players that could have been chosen for this award such as (Akita forward Ruben) Boykin, (Shinshu forward) Xavier Gibson, (Iwate forward) Scootie Randall, and also (Toyama center) Sam Willard. Everyone has worked extremely hard to have gotten their respective teams where they are, and it is a privilege to be named in the top five.”

A coach’s viewpoint: Bob Pierce, the first coach in Shiga history, who has followed Joho’s pro career for nearly a decade, including as an opposing coach when he led Akita and the Sendai 89ers, has consistently labeled the speedy guard one of his favorite players. Pierce has also been an astute observer of what sets Joho apart from many of his peers.

“When I went to Shiga to coach, I watched hours and hours of bj-league games, and began to notice some of the crazy shots Joho made for the Tokyo Apache. At first I thought it was luck, but nobody makes that many lucky shots,” Pierce recalled in an email to The Japan Times on Wednesday evening.

“Of course when he came to Shiga for my second season, I realized that it was his hard work that made him successful. He would usually spend close to an hour after practice working on his game. Maybe 15 minutes perfecting his floater, or a runner, or a hook shot. Then 3-point shots, shots off the dribble, one-on-one, conditioning. … There was no doubt that he wanted to be the best.

“In the weight room, Joho worked just has hard. He was always the strongest, or near the top, in most lifts, and that’s including the five American players we had.”

In 2009-10, after Joho averaged 15.0 ppg for Shiga, Pierce “personally thought Joho should have been voted Best Five at the end of that season,” he admitted on Wednesday. “But quite often a slight like that is what motivates an athlete to work to achieve even greater success.

“And finally,” he continued, “Joho found the perfect combination for his skill set: (Toyama guard) Mito, Ira Brown, and Coach Nash. I’m not sure he achieves the level of consistency and success without those three. I really thought Joho and Mito brought out the best in each other, and the team’s finish in the standings seems to bear that out.

“Joho has long wanted to be the best. Not just to be good, but to be the best. You have to have great desire, and the work ethic to go with it, to achieve an award like league MVP. This is an award that was nine seasons in the making. Congratulations, Joho!”