Jerod Ward and Nile Murry suited up for the then-expansion Toyama Grouses in the 2006-07 season, and Julius Ashby made his mark as the starting center for the first-year Takamatsu Five Arrows.

All three players have returned to Japan this season, but are presently playing for different teams — except for Ward, who rejoined the Grouses last weekend.

Murry, who played collegiate ball at Temple University and Texas Christian University and was in the Hungarian League last season, is the starting point guard for the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa. He’s scoring 20.7 points per game and leads the team in assists (119) and steals (51).

Ward, a small forward, played for the Shanghai Donfang Sharks (better known as Yao Ming’s former team) in the Chinese Basketball Association last season. The former University of Michigan player, now 32, averaged 22.1 points and 8.1 rebounds for Shanghai last season. He made his 2008-09 bj-league debut last Sunday and scored four points.

Ashby, a 205-cm center, helped the Five Arrows reach the bj-league title game and earned an impressive runnerup finish in their first season. This season, he has become an important frontcourt player for Apache coach Joe Bryant, giving the team quality minutes and consistent productivity in the post.

Averaging 25.1 minutes a game, he’s scored 10.3 ppg, pulled down 8.0 rpg and made his mark as one of the league’s top reserves.

With 33 blocked shots, 33 assists and 31 slam dunks (two or more slams in eight games) the native of Trinidad and Tobago has carved a niche for himself as a strong all-around player for Tokyo.

Ashby, 26, is the type of player every hoop coach wants to be around the basket on either end of the court. Blessed with explosive athleticism and quick leaping ability, the former University of Colorado player elevates himself quickly and can play effectively above the rim.

This is why overseas talent evaluators recognized his potential, too. He was drafted by Fort Wayne of the NBA Development League in November 2007.

Ashby’s goal of becoming a standout player in the NBA D-League and possibly earning a promotion to the NBA didn’t happen — not yet, anyway.

He attended Fort Wayne’s preseason camp and was released. And so he played for Criollos de Caguas, a team in the Puerto Rican League, last season. But it was a short-lived experience.

“I went down there on a 10-game contract,” said Ashby, who returned to his adopted hometown, New York City, to play summer ball after his time in Puerto Rico.

Asked to provide an assessment of his performance for the Apache, Ashby said he has played solid basketball this season, but without hesitation admitted the long layoff and limited playing time in the 2007-08 season did affect his return to the court last fall.

“I’m sure everybody can see I don’t play the same as I did when I was at Takamatsu,” he said after a recent game. “But I just think I have to keep playing as much as I can.

“There was a lot of time last season when I wasn’t doing anything,” he added.

Little by little, Ashby has dusted off the cobwebs and has emerged once again as one of the top young frontcourt players in the bj-league.

Looking ahead: This weekend’s schedule is as follows: Niigata Albirex BB (10-14) vs. Sendai 89ers (11-13); Osaka Evessa (15-9) vs. Oita HeatDevils (5-19); Toyama Grouses (7-17) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (14-10); Tokyo Apache (16-8) vs. Saitama Broncos (11-13); Takamatsu Five Arrows (15-9) vs. Rizing Fukuoka (10-14); and Ryukyu Golden Kings (20-4) vs. Shiga Lakestars (10-14).

Courtside view: It will be a watershed moment for the league when a Japanese player finishes a season (perhaps next season?) in the top 10 in scoring. And it’ll be a key factor in the growth of the league’s popularity across the nation.

Through three-plus seasons, foreign players have consistently been the league’s top scorers. But in the long run Japanese players must emerge as top-10 scorers to enhance the league’s reputation and create more die-hard fans.

Last weekend, for instance, provided a glimpse of the scoring prowess — and potential — of the league’s Japanese players.

Naoto Takushi of the Golden Kings finished Sunday’s contest with 30 points. On the same day, Yu Okada had a 24-point effort in the Five Arrows’ victory over the Evessa.

Currently, the league’s highest-scoring Japanese player is Niigata’s Yuichi Ikeda (14.5 ppg); the league’s No. 10 scorer, on the other hand, is Takamatsu Five Arrows power forward Gordon James (19.8).

Other double-digit Japanese scorers are Ryukyu’s Shigeyuki Kinjo (14.0), Tokyo’s Cohey Aoki (13.9), Okada (13.8) and Niigata’s Akitomo Takeno (13.0).

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