In a little more than a year’s time, the Ryukyu Golden Kings have had three distinct identities:

• An expansion team that had promising young players and a difficult first season.

• An amazing storybook success story in the 2008-009 campaign, winning 41 of 52 regular-season games and the franchise’s first bj-league title.

• And now, a month after attaining its ultimate goal, the team is entering a new chapter.

What happened?

After leaving two-time Best Five player and point guard Naoto Takushi unprotected this week (he was selected by the Kyoto Hannaryz in Monday’s expansion draft), the Golden Kings have unceremoniously discarded a major piece of their championship puzzle.

On Wednesday, though, Ryukyu agreed to contractual terms with free agent point guard Tsubasa Yonamine, who has played for the Oita HeatDevils since 2006, including two seasons under current Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani when he was Oita’s floor boss. Yonamine, who turned 26 in May, is a quality pickup for the Golden Kings. I’ve been impressed with his ball handling and in-game decisions as a floor leader. He was fourth in the league in assists this season (4.9 per game, with 256 assists to 102 turnovers), no easy feat for a player on a team that went 8-44.

In a league with limited resources and budget restraints set in place due to a salary cap, Takushi’s departure from the Okinawa club shouldn’t be a complete shock. Clearly, it was a business decision based on the bottom-line finances.

League policy mandates contracts to a maximum of one year, creating a complex challenge to maintain the same core of players.

And it provided a sobering reminder that any player is expendable to any team at any given time, even a player who is widely recognized as one of the league’s top Japanese players.

“The young man can play,” said Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant of Takushi. “He flirts with a triple-double every night.”

In fact, he came close to an incredibly rare quadruple-double in a November game against the Takamatsu Five Arrows (eight points, eight rebounds, nine assists, 10 steals). Takushi, who turns 28 in October, led the bj-league in assists in 2007-08, a telltale sign of his ability to be a quality leader from the get-go.

Takushi, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 bj-league draft, and shooting guard Shigeyuki Kinjo, both of whom attended Kitanakagusuku High School in Okinawa, formed a potent tandem in the backcourt. And they could’ve starred in the same lineup for the next five to 10 years. For Ryukyu fans, it’s a shame that they won’t be able to see that too-good-to-be-true dream come to fruition.

Kinjo, a former Ryukyu practice player who was named the league’s Most Improved Player in 2008-09 (he scored 13.2 ppg and made 52 starts), turns 25 in November. He has become a go-to clutch scorer with a penchant for big 3-point shots and a dependable defender.

* * * * *

The Kyoto Hannaryz now own exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with Takushi for the next five years. But Kyoto can trade his rights for players, draft picks and cash to an other team, according to league spokesman Akihiro Ejima.

Takushi seemed surprised by Ryukyu’s decision, according to a story that appeared on the Okinawa Times’ Web site on Tuesday.

“I just heard about it (that I was not protected by the team),” Takushi was quoted as saying. “I have no choice but to follow Okinawa’s policy/decision/strategy.

“Now, the Hannaryz have only the right to negotiate with me,” he added. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet.”

Indeed, Takushi didn’t reveal whether he will negotiate with the Hannaryz or pursue other opportunities — playing ball overseas, such as in the American Basketball Association, the United States Basketball League or Europe or go back to the JBL (he played for the Aisin Sea Horses before joining Ryukyu).

In numerous discussions with basketball sources across the country this week, the prevailing belief is that the former Hosei University standout will not return to the bj-league for the 2009-10 season.

Some sources believe his salary last season was reportedly the same as league MVP and center Jeff Newton, who has won four bj-league titles, including three straight with Osaka Evessa, in as many sea sons. Others speculate that Takushi would now demand a pay raise the team simply couldn’t afford to pay.

The Golden Kings did not respond to The Japan Times’ e-mail or telephone requests seeking comment about Takushi. And so we are left with an incomplete picture about what really happened between Takushi and the Ryukyu front office — that is, if any discussions even took place.

* * * * *

Ryukyu, however, has quickly turned the page and prepared for the future by signing Yonamine, another talented point guard. But as the Osaka Evessa learned while collecting three straight titles, keeping a team’s nucleus intact is a difficult proposition in the bj-league.

For instance, league MVP David Palmer left the team after the 2006-07 season, and standouts Newton, Mikey Marshall and Matt Lottich didn’t return to Kansai for the 2008-09 season after the team completed a three-peat.

Salary-related issues obviously played a part in the end of the Evessa dynasty. The team was essentially in a rebuilding mode this season and had a different identity.

We’ll probably need to wait until a significant portion of the 2009-10 season has been played to see if Yonamine appears to be a good fit for the Golden Kings. We already know that Kinjo, Newton, as well as forwards Chris Ayer, Anthony McHenry and Bryan Simpson are key members of the championship team, while 24-year-old forward Yoshiki Yamashiro and 25-year-old guard Yosuke Sugawara could play bigger roles in the future.

But Takushi’s defensive presence, basketball IQ and all-out moxie could prove to be irreplaceable.

Only time will tell.


Coronavirus banner