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Togashi catalyst for Chiba’s success

by

Staff Writer

Yuki Togashi is one of the most dynamic young basketball players in Japan.

He hasn’t reached his prime yet, even though he’s rapidly grown as an all-around player and a floor leader.

Now in his fourth season as a pro, Togashi is comfortable in the spotlight as one of the key stars on the Chiba Jets, who have emerged as a quality all-around club under first-year bench boss Atsushi Ono, who’s done a commendable job blending his team’s talents into a cohesive unit. Entering this weekend, the Jets (33-14), who joined the now-disbanded bj-league as an expansion team in 2011, are having their finest season, including the Emperor’s Cup crown in January.

What’s unique about Togashi’s rise to stardom is the fact that he never played college basketball — unlike almost every one of his peers, that is. (Another exception: Swingman Makoto Sawaguchi of the second-division Iwate Big Bulls turned pro in 2010, joining the Akita Northern Happinets after completing high school.)

Togashi, who turns 24 in July, took an important step in his development as a player by attending hoop powerhouse Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland. Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant and Alvark Tokyo players Keijuro Matsui and Taishi Ito are among Montrose’s notable alumni.

Looking back on the next chapter of his basketball career, the 167-cm Togashi revealed that he often thinks about what might have been had he played college ball.

“If I could play college, I’d go back to college right now in the U.S.,” Togashi said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times on Sunday following his 22-point performance, including 13 of 14 on free throws, in Chiba’s 101-90 home triumph over the Levanga Hokkaido.

“But I choose not to go to college and to play professionally. I wanted to play in college,” he said, adding specifically at the NCAA Division I level.

Did Togashi’s family encourage him to turn pro after he graduated from Montrose?

No, he said, calling it “my decision.”

“When I went to the (United) States before high school,” he said, “I promised them if I got a D-I scholarship I would go there (for college), but if I don’t get any I am coming back to Japan . . .”

Togashi did receive some partial-scholarship offers and some interest from D-II schools, but stuck with his original plan.

After a season and a half with the Happinets (2013-14; he joined the team midway through his rookie campaign), Togashi turned some heads with his flashy play for the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, which ultimately helped him land a spot on the Texas Legends roster. He appeared in 25 games for the Legends in an injury-plagued 2014-15 NBA Development League season, posting averages of 2.0 points, 1.0 assists and 8.3 minutes.

Togashi then returned to Japan, joining the Jets before last season.

Along the way, Togashi said he appreciates the opportunities he’s had as a young pro, starting with Akita under septuagenarian sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura. Over his first four games with the Happinets, Togashi played all but four minutes.

Togashi described his Akita debut, a 40-minute outing, as unforgettable, and still expresses amazement that Nakamura made that call.

“I can’t believe if I was the coach (that) I can do that,” the Niigata Prefecture native said. “(But) he was the reason I’m here right now.”

Togashi earned 2013-14 bj-league All-Star Game MVP accolades in Akita. He collected the MVP award in January after the first B. League All-Star Game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium with a dazzling 16-point, six-assist performance.

This season, Togashi is averaging 13.0 points and 4.1 assists (No. 3 in the first division) per game. He’s shooting 88.6 percent from the free-throw line (third-best accuracy in B1).

Even so, Togashi keeps thinking about the what-ifs.

“I always wanted to go to college, even (though) I’m having a successful season right now, but if I could go back to college after high school, I’d probably go to college . . .”

That said, Togashi considers Chiba a “good place” at this stage of his career.

Togashi is one of the driving forces of the high-powered Jets offense. They are first in the top flight in 3-pointers per game (9.5), and with his speed and aggressive defense, Togashi has helped the Jets soar to No. 2 in steals (7.2), which often translate into fast-break attempts or pull-up 3s at the other end.

Fearless and determined, Togashi is a vital part of the Jets’ winning ways.

“Yuki is not scared of anything when it comes to basketball,” Jets forward Michael Parker told The Japan Times. “He is very sure in his skills and very confident in his play. He definitely plays well beyond his years, but has a fire that I have only seen in a few Japanese players.”

What does Parker most appreciate as one of Togashi’s running mates on offense?

“The best things he does is pass and find the open man, but also for being so small he can create space to get his shot off,” Parker observed. “He has amazing handles and can finish with a floater over anyone.”

Another benefit: “Having him on the team is great because he is a leader and can speak both English and Japanese,” said Parker, who’s ninth in the league in rebounds (8.7), fourth in steals (1.68) and third in blocks (1.79).

Osaka Evessa big man Josh Harrellson is impressed with Togashi’s poise and skills.

“When I first think of Yuki, I see a solid point guard that understands the game,” Harrellson told The Japan Times. “He knows how to read plays and also make plays. He has a good shot and can attack the basket for his size.

“I do believe he has a different style because he went to high school in America and played in the D-League. He has a different kind of flair than most Japanese. He is a very good player and will be good for a long time.”

Second-division spotlight on … top scorers: Chehales Tapscott of the Kagawa Five Arrows is No. 1 (19.2 ppg), followed by Rick Rickert of the Ibaraki Robots (18.6), Solomon Alabi of the Fighting Eagles Nagoya (18.0), Ryan Stephan of the Tokyo Excellence (17.6) and Kyle Barrone of the Aomori Wat’s (17.3). The next five: Aomori’s Alan Wiggins Jr., son of the late MLB player (15.8), Thomas Kennedy of the Gunma Crane Thunders (13.9), Reggie Warren of the Kumamoto Volters (13.9), Tokyo’s Luke Evans (13.8) and Naoki Tani of the Nishinomiya Storks (13.7).

As the leading Japanese point producer among B2 players, the 28-year-old Tani has helped coach Kensaku Tennichi’s club put itself in position to contend for the Central Division title. Through Sunday, the Storks and Fighting Eagles have identical 34-14 records, putting them atop the division and on a collision course to vie for the division crown.

Tani, a small forward, scored a season-high 28 points on Jan. 28 against Aomori. He joined the Storks in 2011. He’s started all 48 games this season.

Upcoming games: This week’s B1 slate tips off on Friday with Sendai vs. Hokkaido. A day later, the following series tip off: Mikawa vs. Kyoto, Toyama vs. Shibuya, Tochigi vs. Tokyo, San-en vs. Niigata, Akita vs. Chiba, Shiga vs. Osaka, Yokohama vs. Kawasaki and Ryukyu vs. Nagoya.