His name isn’t LeBron James, but his play, like the NBA legend’s, captivates a pro basketball league’s audience. And many of his performances in October, November and early December have been among the best of the 2015-16 bj-league season.
Le’Bryan Nash, a rookie forward for the Fukushima Firebonds, scored 31 or more points in each of his first five games. He had 31 in the Firebonds’ season opener against the Yokohama B-Corsairs on Oct. 3, including a headline-grabbing 25 free throws (14 makes). He had a 47-point outburst, six points shy of the league record, in Fukushima’s fifth game, on Oct. 17 against the Gunma Crane Thunders.
Nash, averaging a league-high 26.4 points, has played an instrumental role in the Firebonds’ emergence as one of the league’s most exciting teams this season.
Opposing teams have been forced to plot their defensive game plan with Nash as a focal point. Which has given the Oklahoma State product an opportunity to make an impact in other facets of the game, too.
Exhibit A: On Nov. 28 against the Saitama Broncos, Nash notched his first triple-double as a pro (14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in the Firebonds’ 84-64 win.
“He’s been a huge part of our team,” Fukushima coach Hiroki Fujita said on Wednesday. “His scoring ability, his ability to change the dynamics of the game has just totally been huge for us so far this season.”
Last Saturday, the Firebonds (11-7) dropped a triple-overtime game against the visiting Kyoto Hannaryz, followed by a one-point loss the next day — two defeats by a combined three points.
“We’ve had some games that we could’ve won and some games that could’ve went our way, but didn’t,” Nash told Hoop Scoop by phone from Koriyama.
“It’s a learning situation,” he added, speaking about the second-year franchise. “We’ve been in a lot of close games, and every game we lost we could’ve won.”
That’s correct. All of the Firebonds’ defeats have been by 10 or less points.
That fact gives Nash and his teammates something to rally around as the 52-game season marches on.
“Just keep getting better throughout the season and be prepared for the playoffs,” he said.
By all accounts, Nash has made a profound impact for Fukushima, and he recognizes he must be a key performer for the club.
“It started out good (for me),” the 23-year-old stated before noting that “people are scouting me more and more and they are focusing on me more and more, so it’s just something that’s a challenge for me. People are trying to fill in on me and I am trying to get my teammates involved and get them good shots.
“I know I’m a topic of everybody’s game plan being the leading scorer of the league, and I’m just trying to take on the challenge and help my team win games . . . and just be the best player I can be and try to have an MVP-type season.”
The 201-cm Nash struggled to score against Kyoto, making 5 of 18 shots in the aforementioned opener (19 points) and 4 of 16 in the rematch (a nine-point outing, breaking his season-long streak of double-digit scoring efforts).
“They did a great job, especially on the defense end,” Nash said of the Hannaryz. “I can see why they won 44 games (last season). That coach (Honoo Hamaguchi) is a great coach and he ran great plays.”
Big man Stephan Van Treese, who attended the University of Louisville, and guard Masaya Karimata are the Firebonds’ other double-digit scorers, averaging 14.3 and 13.6 ppg, respectively. (Nash credits the 25-year-old Van Treese with being a quality mentor, “showing me how to be a professional in Japan . . . telling me all the advice that I need.”)
Karimata, a consummate entertainer, has an exciting flair to his game, but also ignites the Firebonds with timely 3s, assists (he has a team-high 86) and steals.
“He’s a guy that can get hot real quick,” Nash said of Karimata. “He just needs a couple of shots to go down to get his confidence up. . . . He can get hot at anytime.”
What’s more, Karimata’s ability to create shots for his teammates and distribute the ball to them has been a key to Nash’s success. They thrive in unison on pick-and-roll plays.
In his view, Nash, who won the 2011 McDonald’s High School All-American Dunk Contest, gave this assessment: “I think the biggest thing that people can say about me that I say about myself is I’m always trying to win the game — that’s all I really care about.”
He added: “You become a great player when you win and you know how to win and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Nash was a highly recruited player out of Lincoln High in Dallas, drawing interest from Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas, among others.
He was ranked No. 6 in the Class of 2011, according to rivals.com, which tracks and analyzes college recruiting. Draftexpress.com reported that he was “a top-10 recruit in the class of 2011 with prototypical size and athleticism for an NBA wing.”
As a college senior, he averaged 17.2 points (second in the Big 12 Conference) and 5.7 rebounds in the 2014-15 season. He left Oklahoma State as the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer (1,821 points). He estimated that he worked out for 13 or 14 teams before the 2015 NBA Draft and said “I think every workout I went to I did great; I think I only had one bad workout.”
But he wasn’t selected in the June draft nor signed by an NBA team for the current season.
That has only pushed Nash to work hard in Japan and improve his all-around game.
“I think I should’ve been in the NBA, but all I can do is prove myself and show them that they made a mistake,” Nash told Hoop Scoop.
Nash, whose older brother Byron Eaton played guard for the now-defunct Tokyo Apache during the 2010-11 season, said he believes he has a future in the NBA. But he also stated that he’s happy making a living playing the game he loves in Japan.
On the Firebonds, that’s a role he’s comfortable with. The squad tailored its offense around the strengths of Karimata and guard Verdell Jones III (who’s now with the NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors), among others last season. Now he’s their go-to scorer. “As far as just flat-out scoring the ball, Le’Bryan’s been on another stage as far as putting the ball in the hole,” Fujita observed.
Asked to analyze Nash’s scoring prowess, Fujita, who’s in his second season at the helm, pointed out “that at the beginning of the season, especially, he pretty much carried us. We struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter and he scored 30-plus points for us to get to a 5-1 start.”
Nash was named the bj-league’s October MVP. His impressive start to his pro career is fueled by confidence and a belief in his abilities, according to Fujita.
“He’s got a different swagger to him, or demeanor,” the coach said. “He’s very confident in his ability, and he’s been very highly recruited out of high school. In college, he played very well. He’s been playing well for a long period of time, and I expect that from him, and he’s playing well.”
The rookie’s start in basketball began when he was 5, his mother, Samantha Nash, told Hoop Scoop via email.
“The first time I knew he was going to be good was in the sixth grade, (when) he dunked the ball for the first time,” she wrote. “LB has always had the mindset of a winner. He played football for some years, had a nice arm. He played quarterback. . . . He loves to win.”
For Fujita, building the team’s 2015-16 team roster took a turn for the better when Nash’s agent reached out to the Firebonds and he saw the ex-Cowboy’s highlights from college.
“I had a good feeling about him,” Fujita says now, adding, “His ability to score, his natural feel for the game to score, also his physical ability. He’s 6-7, well built, quick. You’d see all that on the film. . . . So he was a perfect fit for that spot.”
So is winning the scoring title a top objective for Nash?
“I could say yeah and I could say no,” he said diplomatically. “Yeah, because I’m already up there and I feel like that’s my role with my team: to score the ball and be the force on the offensive end. And I could say no because I do whatever it takes for my team to win.”
At the same time, he’s committed to being recognized as an all-around player. Defensive improvement is one of his goals this season.
“I know I need to get better every day,” Le’Bryan Nash said.
A guy named LeBron James has embodied that attitude for years.
Nash, of course, isn’t King James, but he possesses a certain star quality that could be the X-factor for the Firebonds this season in their quest to make a deep postseason run.
“We definitely have the potential,” Fujita said. “I’m confident that we can beat good teams in this league if we execute well. Hopefully we can head in the right direction.”