First in a two-part series
The only way Japanese basketball can prosper in the future is if a collection of native sons develops into must-watch stars. In other words, their latest game must become the topic du jour for hundreds of sports journalists and ordinary citizens alike.
For now, the bj-league, overshadowed by the JBL in talent and tradition, has a handful of special Japanese stars.
But in a season-long effort to chronicle their accomplishments, and four seasons in total now, this writer recognizes that the bj-league features a unique collection of talented performers, many of whom are at times go-to players on their respective teams.
We witnessed the jaw-dropping shooting exploits of Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix guard Masahiro Oguchi, a role player for his team all season, in the Eastern Conference final on May 22 at Ariake Colosseum.
In a game that will be talked about for decades by Japanese hoop fans, Oguchi drained 10 of 14 3-point shots — for comparative purposes, think about this: Boston’s Ray Allen knocked down eight 3s in Game 2 of the NBA Finals — en route to a lifetime-high 35-point outing.
But really Oguchi, a dead-eye shooter, is always capable of producing that type of effort. He has terrific shooting technique, and routinely drains 70 percent of his 3s in practice, Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura told me after the team’s championship win over the Osaka Evessa on May 23.
Oguchi, the playoff MVP, is one of the bj-league’s top 10 Japanese players. A steady leader and a quintessential defensive pest, he makes his teammates better whenever he steps onto the floor.
He became the first Japanese to be named playoff MVP.
(The league made the selection without revealing the votes, or who voted. Indeed, media outlets should be a part of the voting process, especially those who cover the league on a weekly basis, but the league, failing to see the big picture for the zillionth time, hasn’t given us that opportunity.)
This season, Takamatsu’s Yu Okada became the first Japanese in league history to finish in the top 10 in scoring. He averaged 19.0 points per game. Also noteworthy: Apache guard Cohey Aoki was named to the Best Five Team.
In a project that began in October, newspaper writers, bloggers, coaches, die-hard hoop fans and players were asked this question: Who are the league’s top 10 Japanese players?
Here is a collection of responses.
Phoenix standout Billy Knight dished out the following analysis: “Well, I am not saying this because they are my teammates but Shingo Okada and Masashiro Oguchi on my team are two of the top guys in the league, let alone Japanese players. . . They have the best defense in the league. Both are very fast and show they can play on a higher level, like the Japanese national team.”
He added: “Yu Okada is the best shooter and one of best players. He led Japanese guys in scoring. Cohey Aoki from Tokyo is good and plays very under control and at his pace. Masashi Joho plays like Manu Ginobili from Spurs. These are, in my opinion, the best Japanese guys in the league.”
DJ Yumiko Uncutflava, an avid fan, offered a different perspective.
Her top-five list featured the following players: Aoki, Niigata’s Akitomo Takeno, Okada, Joho and Ryukyu guard Shigeyuki Kinjo, a key player and dynamic scorer on the team’s 2008-09 championship squad who missed most of the past season with a knee injury.
In addition, she made an observation that many others have stated since the league’s inception. “In the bj-league, it’s not easy to pick the names of great Japanese power forwards or centers.”
The future development of the sport will rely on the emergence of quality Japanese frontcourt stars. In the meantime, the league’s top Japanese performers are primarily guards or wing players.
Two-time MVP Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa e-mailed me the following list:
1. Kinjo (Ryukyu)
2. Okada (Takamatsu)
3. Aoki (Tokyo)
4. Kenichi Takahashi (Sendai)
5. Haruhito Shishito (Saitama)
6. Joho (Shiga)
Bob Pierce, who coached the Lakestars for the past two seasons but didn’t receive a contract extension for 2010-11, offered the most in-depth analysis of my many sources. Pierce’s professional background includes scouting for the NBA, and it’s no surprise that he handled my inquiry with a scout’s eye for detail.
During the thick of the playoff hunt, he wrote: “The top three this season are pretty clear, and in no particular order:
1. Yu Okada is having a great season, and is in the top 10 in about three categories. Only problem is that his team is depleted, and will probably finish with the worst record in the league.
2. Masashi Joho is having his best year in the bj-league. Even if Mikey Marshall ends up averaging more points per game, Joho will probably lead the Lakestars in total points scored.
3. Cohey Aoki is continuing his great free-throw shooting and clutch shooting. Tokyo, as of this writing, is in fourth place and in the playoffs, and many of those wins are because of Cohey.
As of March 27, he noted the following stats, to prove his point:
#10 Yu Okada 18.4
#14 Cohey Aoki 15.9
#18 Masashi Joho 15.0
#2 Yu Okada 1,493 minutes
#7 Cohey Aoki 1,349 minutes
#10 Masashi Joho 1,303 minutes
He continues by saying, “These three guys have come to play every game this season, and their various stats reflect that. In a league dominated by import players these three players are often the difference in their respective teams winning or losing.
“It’s much harder after the top three.”
4. Shigeyuki Kinjo was on his way to another fine season, averaging 18 points a game, when he hurt his knee. I don’t know if 12 games is really enough, nor do I know if he will be able to come back and play at the same level, but if he can he deserves to be on this list.
5. Naoto Takushi belongs on this list based on his talent, but with some reservations. He is in the top 10 in assists, but hasn’t done much to make Kyoto a playoff contender. Seems to take games off if he doesn’t think they can win, as opposed to the top three listed who seem to play hard every game. Considering his salary, he should be expected to do more. But based on talent alone, he’s one of the five best.
6. Kenichi Takahashi is a big reason Sendai is having such a good season. But there are games when he’s not much of a factor, which can’t be said about the top three.
7. Akitomo Takeno has had a hand in many of Niigata’s wins, but at times is a non-factor. He’s still trying to figure out if he’s a scorer, a point guard who can lead a team, or a little of both.
Nos. 8-10. Tsubasa Yonamine, Yosuke Sugawara, Masashi Obuchi: Despite all the injury problems that Okinawa has faced, with Kinjo and Jeff Newton missing large chunks of the season, these three take turns coming through to keep the Golden Kings winning games and in first place in the tough Western Conference.
Evess.net blogger Wolfy decided his top-five list should be comprised of the following standouts:
• Okada (Takamatsu)
• Masashi Obuchi (Ryukyu)
• Aoki (Tokyo)
• Naoto Takushi (Kyoto)
• Kazuya Hatano (Saitama)
He explained why Hatano, a role player on the Evessa’s three title-winning clubs, deserves to be on the list.
“Hatano didn’t earn numbers and was almost ‘benched’ until January, but once he’s on the floor, he can make more space for the team efficiently, no other Japanese players do (that) like him,” Wolfy wrote in an e-mail.
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Former Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi has always been willing and available to provide commentary on the fledgling league, and he won’t sugar-coat his answers to please those in charge.
(Example: Prior to the 2009 draft, while chatting in a Tokyo hotel lobby, he told me, “There are no good players here.” It’s a reminder of the nation’s shortcomings in developing basketball players at the college level.)
“I like Takamatsu’s Okada, who can shoot the ball very well and he also has great eye to pass the ball to open man,” Tennichi told me. “Sendai’s Takahashi, he can shoot, too. And Niigata’s Takeno, when he plays at point guard, he is good. He is good at handling the pick-and-roll situation. He can make other players better.
“Probably, Shiga’s Joho should be named. He improved his scoring skills this season, and maybe Tokyo’s Aoki. He is small (167 cm) but he tries to go to the basket and draw the foul.”
Tennichi believes these five players’ defensive skills are far from satisfactory.
“In my opinion, all those guys have to work on the defensive end a lot more,” he said. “These five guys don’t play defense with high intensity. Some players don’t play defense at all, but if I have to choose five good Japanese players, I would take them. It is a very hard question for me because almost all Japanese players don’t pay attention on defense.”
But Tennichi did point out that Hatano sets himself apart from dozens of other Japanese players due to his get-down-and-dirty-in-the-trenches workload.
Is there a top Japanese defender? I asked.
“Hatano could be candidate for this,” said Tennichi, “because he can get defensive rebounds and he has a spirit no Japanese player has.”
Tennichi refuses to believe Japanese players have little room for improvement. In fact, quite the opposite is true, he argues.
“Now, among the Japanese we just have small guys in this league,” said Tennichi, who won 70.4 percent of games while coaching the Evessa from 2005-10. “None of them go to the basket hard, no post-up (moves). They don’t know how to do that, so there is no all-around Japanese player, period.
He added: “One of my biggest concerns about Japanese basketball is a lack of fundamental skills and understanding about that. Too many players drop the ball on the floor before he sees his given situation. They pass and catch the ball with one hand. They lack knowledge about basic concepts: defense, spacing, move without the ball, etc.
“Unfortunately, in my opinion, there is no fundamentally sound Japanese player in this country.”
Tokyo guard Rasheed Sparks, who helped lead the Five Arrows to the bj-league championship game as a first-year expansion team in 2006-07, clearly enjoyed the topic, his voice picking up speed as he rattled off positive attributes of several of the league’s better Japanese players.
Sparks’ short list includes Aoki, Okada, Joho, Saitama’s Taishiro Shimizu (“an underrated player; when he wants to play, he can play”), Takushi and Toyama’s Takeshi Mito.
Sparks said Mito’s lateral speed and overall quickness make him a difficult matchup for foes.
Rizing coach Tadaharu Ogawa felt the task of selecting five or 10 players too challenging during our phone conversation a few months ago, but he did speak about the subject.
“It is hard to pick five players,” he told me. “But (Toyama guard Takeshi) Mito (11.7 ppg) and Sendai’s Takahashi (10.9 ppg) are showing us great performances this season.”
Golden Kings guard Tsubasa Yonamine, one of the league’s best decision-makers, narrowed his choices to Sugawara, Obuchi, Kinjo, Oita’s Yukinori Suzuki and Okada.
• Yonamine on Sugawara: “He has size, he has high defensive skills and he can match up with the imports. I think he is a rare player who can play at both ends, matching up with import players.”
• Yonamine on Obuchi: “He is a smart player. He has a high basketball IQ. He can penetrate, he can shoot and I think one of his best attractions is his aggressive defense.”
• Yonamine on Kinjo: “He runs the court quicker and harder than anybody. It’s outstanding and he can hit the 3-pointer, he can dribble to the basket, move to the basket and finish with a teardrop (jumper). He is the versatile scorer.”
• Yonamine on Suzuki: “He is also a good shooter, he doesn’t get much attention, but once he shoots the ball he makes his presence on the team. .T.T. He can establish the deep presence on the floor. For instance, you can go help other players, but you always have to pay attention to what he is going to do.”
• Yonamine on Okada: “He ranks among the best 10 in the scoring category and he can knock down off-balance shots or tough shots. It’s not only shooting, but also he has a keen eye to find the right open players. I think that makes him unique.”
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Hoop Scoop’s Top 10
1. Yu Okada
The bottom line: He finished in the top 10 in scoring and steals (No. 2, 2.3 per game). ‘Nuff said.
2. Cohey Aoki
The bottom line: The league’s best little big man. Plays hard, plays with heart and has a knack for making a big shot or delivering a clutch pass when his team needs it most. He’ll drain 85 out of 100 free throws with his eyes closed.
3. Masashi Joho
The bottom line: The only Japanese to play in the first four championship games, Joho has a game-changing presence when he’s active at both ends of the floor. He also has one of the league’s best work ethics, and helped transform Shiga into a playoff team in his first season with the club. He averaged 15.0 ppg.
4. Masashi Obuchi
The bottom line: He provided a steady dose of offense productivity for the Golden Kings (10.5 points in 24.9 minutes per game; 22 games after the All-Star break). And now he’s showing his courage and willingness to embrace big challenges by attending the NBA Development League national tryout in Chantilly, Va., this weekend.
5. Masashiro Oguchi
The bottom line: On the grand stage, with a trip to the title game on the line, Oguchi delivered a performance for the ages (35-point games are special at every level). His willingness to dive for every loose ball and his quick reflexes — stealing backcourt passes, for instance — make him a king of intangibles.
6. Yosuke Sugawara
The bottom line: His development into a solid two-way player helped the Golden Kings avoid a major decline this season despite injuries to Kinjo and Newton.
7. Akitomo Takeno
The bottom line: He helped spearhead the Albirex’s turnaround after a 2-8 start. When he’s actively driving, passing and getting his teammates involved offensively, Niigata puts lots of points on the board in a hurry.
8. Naoto Takushi
The bottom line: Kyoto’s leader is blessed with athleticism, but sometimes appears to lose interest in the game.
9. Shigeyuki Kinjo
The bottom line: Despite missing 40 games in 2009-10, he remains one of the league’s top Japanese players. He knows how to get open, and finds ways to score.
10. Kenichi Takahashi
The bottom line: A dependable long-range scorer with a winning attitude and a consummate team-first player. He led the league in free-throw shooting (88.2 percent).
Honorable mention: Grouses guard Takeshi Mito, Niigata forward Yuichi Ikeda, Saitama guard Taishiro Shimizu, Saitama guard Haruhito Shishito, Saitama forward Kazuya Hatano, Hamamatsu guard/forward Shingo Okada, Osaka forward Hirohisa Takada, Fukuoka guard Kohei Mitomo, Takamatsu guard Satoshi Takeda, Kyoto guard Taizo Kawabe, Lakestars guard Takamichi Fujiwara and Ryukyu guard Tsubasa Yonamine. Editor’s note: Next week, part two will focus on the league’s top 20 overall players.
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Contact Ed Odeven at firstname.lastname@example.org