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Vendrame learning the ropes in second season with Sunrockers

by

Staff Writer

Leo Vendrame brings an energetic, exciting flair to the court. At times, he plays the game at warp speed, too.

Blessed with youthful exuberance and natural talent, he’s often a step ahead of a defender, which leads to good scoring chances for his team, the Sunrockers Shibuya.

But it’s a balancing act for the Sunrockers (26-25), who want to harness the up-and-coming guard’s explosiveness for the opportune moments without slowing him down too much.

Vendrame, who’s 23, makes things happen in a hurry. He drives the lane to launch a layup or dish the ball to a teammate.

He makes dazzling passes. He also finishes with too many turnovers at times.

Case in point: Shibuya’s 69-66 home victory over the Yokohama B-Corsairs on Sunday, when Vendrame’s imprint was all over the game — five points (but 0-for-5 on 3-point attempts), five assists, six turnovers, four steals and one block as the Sunrockers completed a series sweep. A day earlier, in the hosts’ 78-62 win, he contributed seven points, six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two turnovers.

“Those wins were big for us,” Vendrame told The Japan Times.

The 183-cm Vendrame scored a season-high 21 points against the host Ryukyu Golden Kings on Feb. 19. He had back-to-back outings of 19 and 18 points against the Sendai 89ers on Jan. 21-22, dishing out 10 assists in the latter game. He’s made five steals on two occasions this season, Dec. 10 (against the Osaka Evessa) and Jan. 21.

Overall, Vendrame, has appeared in 40 games (19 starts), averaging 8.0 points, 2.7 assists, 1.9 turnovers and 1.8 steals. His role and his playing time have increased over the course of the season.

“Compared to the preseason, I really feel like strongly to play more aggressive, especially attacking the hoop,” said Vendrame, who now describes himself as “the leader” for the Sunrockers offense.

Vendrame has carved out a niche as a dynamic, exciting playmaker for Shibuya.

“We like what Leo can bring to our team,” Sunrockers coach BT Toews said on Sunday. “He does things offensively that some veteran players can’t do, especially off of a pick and in transition — his ability to attack.

“While he’s attacking, while he’s penetrating, he’s also looking for his own offense, which is sometimes not the case with Japanese point guards. That’s why you see players like (Akita’s Seiya) Ando or players like (Chiba’s Yuki) Togashi with the national team, because if you’re going to run a pick, you better be able to score as a guard. So Leo does that well, and not well enough yet.”

Toews, who’s in his first season at the helm, noted that Vendrame’s quickness can be beneficial to the team at both ends of the floor and in transition, so the offense can run different plays.

“Defensively, he has the lateral movement and he’s extremely good at anticipating passes — steals,” the Canadian mentor said. “His weakness is sometimes he gambles too much, or he doesn’t just play straight-up contain.

“We need him to understand when he can do that and when he can’t.”

Vendrame is an astute observer of details, including some small ones, that some players may overlook.

For instance, he said that based on Yokohama’s offensive play in the series opener, “I felt that I could have more chances to get steals from their offense because their players sometimes play loose . . . they are not consistently securing the ball. At the beginning of the game (on Sunday), I really wanted to try to grab the ball more.”

Mission accomplished.

The Fukuoka Prefecture native made four first-quarter steals, with impeccable timing on display on several plays.

In his second year as a pro, the half-Japanese Vendrame (his father is from Brazil) is learning the nuances of the game. He played sparingly for the Sunrockers after joining the club at midseason in the NBL’s final campaign in 2015-16. But as a floor leader and offensive quarterback, Vendrame’s decision-making skills can make a significant impact for his team.

“The biggest problem right now is game control,” Toews said. “When to attack and when to run a play and who to go to.”

Despite these challenges, Toews said Vendrame’s progression is similar to other top point guards at his age.

While Toews wants Vendrame to reduce his miscues, he doesn’t want to curtail the youngster’s stye of play.

“Most importantly what I tell him is to be aggressive, which he has no problem doing, and it’s rather to make a mistake of commission rather than omission, and he’s doing that,” the coach added.

Over the final nine games of the regular season, the Sunrockers, who are vying for a playoff spot, need Vendrame to be a key contributor.

His emotional energy is a big part of it.

“We feed off him,” Toews said. “(Former NBA center Robert) Sacre loves to play with him. I think the crowd thinks he’s really exciting. Those are all important things, but as a coach my view is a little bit tempered by what we require and what he can’t do yet.”

With 213-cm Sacre patrolling the paint, firing up hook shots and delivering powerful dunks, Vendrame has an ideal target for his razzle-dazzle passes.

“First of all,” Vendrame said, “I’m really happy to play with that type of player who played in the NBA. When you play basketball just in Japan, you haven’t seen so many NBA players, but you can see the (former) NBA player in my team. That’s a good point for me.”

Said Sacre: “Leo is playing very well. Obviously he’s young. You’ve got to give him a break when he turns the ball over sometimes, but he’s being aggressive, he’s getting guys the ball. Guys are playing really good basketball right now. I’m happy where we’re at.”

And what’s it like for Sacre to team up with the infectious Vendrame for pick-and-roll plays, alley-oops and everything else?

“I love playing with Leo,” the ex-Los Angeles Laker admitted. “I tip my hat to him. He works hard. He comes in early, he leaves late. He really is trying to learn and get better each and every day. . . . I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

While veteran teammate Takashi Ito is more of a traditional point guard, and when Vendrame steps on the court he can push the envelope, be a change-of-pace guy.

“He plays the game a little bit differently than most point guards in Japan,” Toews said of the former Tokai University and Miyazaki Prefecture’s Nobeoka Gakuen High School player, who helped the Kyushu school win its first Winter Cup national title in December 2011 with 22 points in the finale. “He plays it like an American.”

Taking stock of Vendrame’s season to date, Toews summed it up this way: “He’s made huge strides, but he’s still a work in progress, and a lot of it has to do with controlling the game. That’s the biggest; that’s what a point guard does.”

Without hesitation, Vendrame is quick to admit he wants to cut down on turnovers, “not only for the rest of the season but also for the future.”

In addition to Ito, fellow veteran Taishiro Shimizu, 35 also has been an important mentor for Vendrame this season.

“Of course they have taught me a lot of stuff during games, especially if they are talking to me about any specific situation … they have given me a lot of comments or feedback,” Vendrame said. “So this will help me a lot.”

Looking ahead

This weekend’s action tips off on Friday as Kawasaki plays host to Toyama. On Saturday, the following two-game series begin: Nagoya vs. Osaka, Tochigi vs. Hokkaido, Tokyo vs. Chiba, Sendai vs. Akita, Niigata vs. Shibuya, San-en vs. Yokohama, Kyoto vs. Shiga and Ryukyu vs. Mikawa.