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Big man in the middle Sun helping Phoenix’s ascent


Any professional basketball team would welcome the option of having a 236-cm center. In a sport that places a premium on height, an inside tower gives a team power.

Any team would also want its starting point guard to be among the league’s leaders in points and assists.

By happenstance or a stroke of good fortune, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix are blessed with both.

Starting center Sun Ming Ming is 236 cm and 160 kg and considered the world’s tallest basketball player.

Starting point guard Michael Gardener, who played for the Rizing Fukuoka last season, and Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington are tied for second in the bj-league in scoring (25.2 points per game).

The 182-cm Gardener is the league’s top passer (7.0 assists per game). He’s also No. 1 in steals (2.4), giving him a rare shot to win the point guard’s version of a Triple Crown this season.

It’s a winning combination.

The Phoenix (29-13), the Eastern Conference’s top team, are scoring a league-high 90.3 points per game and have had a number of blowout victories. The scoring punch of Marcus Morrison (14.8 ppg), Stanley Ocitti (9.9) and Levonn Jordan (7.5) fills an important role, too.

Hamamatsu will make its second visit of the season to Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum this weekend. The Phoenix have won five of six games against the Tokyo Apache (26-16), who are firmly planted in second place in the East behind veteran coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club.

“I think we are in great shape,” said Gardener, reflecting on his team’s outlook 10 games before the playoffs begin, during a Tuesday telephone interview. “We are right where we need to be at.”

For Kanto residents, this weekend’s series will give them a rare chance to see one of the most interesting athletes to don a uniform in any sport: a Chinese center with an infectious smile, an imposing presence and a resume that thirsts for greater details.

“Ming Ming frustrates many players, just as far as blocking out. Banging with him on both ends of the floor must be tiring, so that takes a toll,” said Gardener.

Sun is averaging 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He hasn’t topped the 20-point plateau (his season-high output is 18), but he has 15 double-digit scoring games. Fifty-seven of his 132 field goals have been slam dunks.

“Once he gets right under the basket, he’s unstoppable,” Gardener declared.

“It’s very difficult to get him the ball sometimes,” he continued, noting Sun’s lack of speed. “He’s so tall and so big and he’s open for that split second when the ball arrives. I can’t pass the ball with those slick passes all the time, and if I lob it, sometimes people might get their hands on it.”

Sun, 25, began playing basketball when he was 15. Since 2006, he’s played in the USBL, the ABA, the IBL and in Mexico. He’s said it’s his dream to play in the NBA some day.

Chronic knee pain has limited Sun to 798 minutes in 40 games, but when he’s on the court the big fellow commands attention in the same way that Hakuho would if he competed against Ichiro Suzuki.

In short, he’s a raw talent who needs time to develop his overall game.

“The fans get on him if he misses a dunk,” said Gardener. “But as long as he’s trying, giving 100 percent, you can’t get (too down) on him.”

Comparing the start of the season to how he’s played in recent games, “I can see his court awareness is much better now,” added Gardener.

Such as?

“He does the little things you might not pick up as a regular fan,” Gardener said. “He’s very smart. He doesn’t want to be different than anyone else.”

Well, when you are 236 cm, it’s difficult to be a so-called typical teammate. But Sun does his part, maintaining the proper attitude.

“I just want to help my team win,” Sun told me after his team’s season-opening win over the Sendai 89ers on Oct. 18 in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

That hasn’t changed. And he’s quick to dish out praise where praise is due.

“His offense is so fine,” Sun said of Gardener, but maybe on defense he’s tired sometimes. His defense is good, he has a lot of steals and good defense, too.”

Sun watches NBA games on a regular basis and gains a greater knowledge of the game by studying the players’ tendencies. This helps, he said, but admitted “you can study a little but, but different players have different skills.”

Curiously enough, the Chinese media have practically ignored Sun’s time in Japan. As of Tuesday, he hadn’t done an in-person or phone interview with a single member of China’s massive press corps.

* * * * *

The Phoenix, previously called the OSG Phoenix, left the JBL after the 2007-08 season and took a name that’s impossible to fit into a one-column headline. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the steady play of veteran guard Masahiro Oguchi.

Oguchi, in fact, may be the team’s hardest working player. Off the bench the 33-year-old gives the team quality minutes and is one of the league’s top backups, especially on defense (he’s No. 4 in steals at 2.1 per game).

“Masahiro Oguchi, he’s an elder statesman,” Gardener said, “but he just does so many things that don’t show up in the stat book. It’s unbelievable.”

“. . . He’s always getting the big stop — loose ball, or steal or tieup — and he’s always under the scrum like in rugby. He’s always coming up with the ball.

“I really consider him one of the top Japanese guards.”

Gardener is earning recognition as well. Now in his second season in the bj-league, he is clearly one of the league’s top players.

“I don’t really feel like my play should be considered the standard of play for a top guard,” he said humbly.

“My expectations and goals are so high, but being a smaller guard it’s more difficult for me. I always find myself having to prove myself.”

Big and small, Sun and Gardener have accomplished plenty in the 2008-09 season. But the final chapter to their story, the team’s story, has yet to be written.