Second in a two-part series

After a half-decade, a handful of elite players are among the bj-league’s bona fide stars. In another 10 years, we’ll have greater context on the subject to enable us to engage in heated debates or friendly conversations about the league’s all-time greats.

For now, we’re left to have those discussions on an annual basis. And that’s a good thing.

The 2009-10 season produced the first championship for an Eastern Conference team (the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix), while 70-year-old coach Kazuo Nakamura proved that he still has the hunger and the skills to guide a team to victory. It was truly a special season for the Phoenix.

And it was no surprise that Phoenix star Wendell White received the league’s regular-season MVP award. He was third in scoring (22.2 points), seven in assists (3.9), sixth in steals (2.0), seventh in dunks (0.9) and fifth in minutes (1,726) while serving as the team’s tone-setter at both ends of the floor.

The former UNLV player headlines Hoop Scoop’s second annual Top 20, a rundown on the best players in the league.

As the league expands, the number of talented imports and Japanese players also continues to increase. That’s why this list was a difficult one to compile.

(The league comes up with its own Best Five Team each season, but a five-player list fails to recognize the skills and abilities of enough players. In other words, it’s inadequate.)

1. Wendell White


The bottom line: White displayed toughness, leadership and all-out intensity from Day One (he scored 32 points in the Phoenix’s season-opening win over the Apache) until his club prevailed against the Osaka Evessa in the championship game.

With White leading the way, Hamamatsu rolled to 41 wins in the regular season, tying the single-season mark set by Ryukyu in 2008-09.


Lynn Washington


The bottom line: Washington, a physical presence down low and a tireless worker, proved his value to a struggling club after the All-Star break and helped his club win 25 of its final 30 games.

He averaged 20.1 ppg and often scored his team’s biggest baskets in crunch time. He’s probably the league’s top passing big man.


Michael Parker


The bottom line: Parker earned his second straight scoring title this season (26.5 ppg) and is one of the league’s best all-around players, as evidenced by his overall contributions.

He was No. 1 in steals (2.9) and minutes (2,080), third in dunks (1.4), fourth in blocks (1.7). Game after game, Parker gives Rizing fans plenty of reasons to say “Wow!”


William Knight


The bottom line: The sweet-shooting lefty brings an old-school flair to the game and a team-first attitude. Teaming up with White to form a super scoring tandem, the UCLA product averaged 19.6 ppg.

He was the league’s third-best 3-point shooter (39.5 percent) and No. 7 at the charity stripe (79.5 percent, 206-for-259). What’s more, he makes quick reads on defense and is almost always in the right place at the right time.


Jeff Newton


The bottom line: Despite missing 18 games with a shoulder injury in the late winter and spring, Newton, a four-time champion, is the undisputed leader of the Golden Kings. When he moved from Osaka to Ryukyu before the 2008-09 season, the entire Okinawa-based franchise was transformed from a second-year club to a legitimate title contender.

Without Newton in the lineup, the Golden Kings wouldn’t have reached the Final Four for the second straight season. Like other great players, you can’t measure his impact by statistics alone, though he always seems to put up a few key game-changing stats each contest. For the season, he averaged 14.9 points, as well as 1.5 blocks and 11.5 per game.

Newton’s health is the No. 1 offseason concern for the Golden Kings. He reportedly planned to have shoulder surgery during the summer.


Ricky Woods


The bottom line: The Southeastern Louisiana product was the league’s second-leading scorer (24.1 ppg). He also finished fifth in steals (2.1) and sixth in rebounds 11.7). In short, he’s one of the league’s most electrifying players, and he’s capable of filling a five-minute news segment on a nightly TV show with highlights from a single game.

Woods set a single-game scoring record (52 points vs. Tokyo on Feb. 28) and had back-to-back 40-point games in January against Niigata.


Nile Murry


The bottom line: A confident floor leader and a lockdown defender, Murry flourished in his second season in Kansai, but struggled mightily in the championship game. You can’t downplay his overall contributions during the long season, though.

His 4.8 assists (No. 3 in the league) and 14.5 ppg in 52 starts were key numbers for the Western Conference champion Evessa. Don’t forget he also averaged 5.8 rpg and collected 81 steals.


Yu Okada


The bottom line: Okada, a rising star since he entered the league with the expansion club in the fall of 2006, became the first Japanese to finish a season in the top 10 in scoring. He did so by averaging a cool 19.0 ppg. He also finished second in steals (2.3) and exhibited a greater focus on defense than in previous seasons.

Okada, who joined his hometown Shiga Lakestars this week, has excellent shooting mechanics and good numbers at the free-throw line (74.4 percent, or 119-for-160). And he would be wise to become more aggressive on offense, attacking the hole to get more shots at the charity stripe.

Plain and simple, a shooter of Okada’s pedigree needs to take more than 3.1 free throws per game.


Michael Gardener


The bottom line: The cash-strapped Five Arrows never had enough depth or talent to be a competitive team this season, but Gardener proved he’s still one of the league’s finest backcourt players.

He scored 21.3 ppg (No. 3) and dished out 7.0 assists to win the passing title.


Cohey Aoki


The bottom line: Aoki is a fan favorite and a player with supreme confidence in his ability to knock down baskets at key moments, either to stop a foe’s run or to tie or give his team a lead in the closing moments of a contest.

If the league kept track of all players’ shooting percentages in the final 5 minutes of a game, Cohey’s name would be near the top of that list.

He didn’t win his fourth free-throw shooting title this season, but he came awfully close, finishing second (87.6 percent)

The 167-cm guard, who masterfully creates space over and around taller defenders, also buried 36.5 percent of his 3s to finish in the top 10 in that category. His durability (52 games, 45 starts) is another facet of his game that cannot be ignored.

Aoki’s 15.2 ppg are a clear-cut reminder of his offensive talents.


Mike Bell


The bottom line: Bell scored 30 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in the HeatDevils’ season-opening game. It was a sign of things to come. He averaged 21.3 points (No. 5 overall) and 12.4 rebounds (No. 4) per game.

One of the hardest-working forwards in the league, Bell’s leaping ability (100 dunks) and strength (204 offensive boards) yielded big results for Oita, which rebounded from an 8-44 season in 2008-09 to go 25-27 this season.

At times, his free-throw shooting woes (152-for-300) diminished his impact, though. And you read it here first: That should be his major focus over the summer.


Chris Holm


The bottom line: The league’s most imposing presence in the middle after the offseason departure of the 236-cm Sun Ming Ming, the former Phoenix center, Holm pulled down 13.8 rpg (second-highest average) and showcased his hoop acumen repeatedly in the 89ers’ motion offense, on the fast break and on defense.

He’s also one of the league’s top passing big men.


Gary Hamilton


The bottom line: The always-hustling Hamilton was the league’s rebounding king (14.3 boards per game) and led his team in assists, steals and blocks, a rare trifecta for a power forward.


Mikey Marshall


The bottom line: The driving force behind the Lakestars’ push to reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Marshall exuded confidence and quickly gained trust from his teammates after suiting up for the first time on March 6 against the Apache in Yokohama.

He poured in 19.6 points in 16 action-packed games for Bob Pierce’s club, which went 11-5 to close out the regular season.

Marshall is one of the rare players who make the game look less complex than it really is.


Josh Bostic


The bottom line: Bostic, a rookie pro, had his share of ups and downs this season. He also had stretches of brilliant play, including 10 games with 20 or more points in November and December.

But in a rocky season — the team had two head coaches, David Benoit and Kazuto Aono — he still averaged 21.9 ppg, the fourth-highest output in the league, and was a whisker shy of 10 rpg. He has a promising future.


Masahiro Oguchi (Hamamatsu),

Masashi Joho (Shiga) — tie

The bottom line: Oguchi, a key reserve for the champion Phoenix, appeared in all 52 games and had enough energy in the tank to explode for 35 points and 10 3-pointers in the Eastern Conference final on May 22 at Ariake Colosseum.

You can’t underestimate Oguchi’s defensive instincts and commitment to hustle. He is a classic case study of a player who realizes the value of the intangibles. And the playoff MVP knows how to play fundamental basketball; case in point: 105 assists, 44 turnovers.

Joho gave a valiant effort this season for the Lakestars, averaging 15.0 ppg and leading the team in scoring for much of the season. His growth as a defender coupled with his increased attention to detail, including cutting down on turnovers, have made him a well-rounded player.


Rasheed Sparks (Tokyo),

Anthony McHenry (Ryukyu) — tie

The bottom line: Two of the most physically gifted players in the league, Sparks and McHenry can change the course of the game at either end of the floor.

Sparks led the Apache offense and defense during a season of transition, playing for now-fired coach Motofumi Aoki.

Sparks played his best ball in the season’s final six weeks, helping the club clinch a playoff berth. He was sixth in assists (4.1) and fourth in steals (2.1).

McHenry filled the void at the defensive end due to Newton’s prolonged absence. He grew more comfortable as the season progressed despite being asked to play major minutes (1,764, third overall).

He finished second in assists (5.0) and eighth in blocks (1.4) and averaged 12.4 ppg.


Julius Ashby


The bottom line: The steady center averaged 19.9 points, 10.6 boards and 1.5 blocks for the Apache.

An anchor in the middle, Ashby is a strong finisher, an explosive dunker and has developed a nice mid-range game to complement his inside repertoire.


Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf


The bottom line: The highest-profile player in league history, Abdul-Rauf, the No. 3 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, can still be a major contributor.

Abdul-Rauf, who turned 41 in March, was slowed down by injuries this season (14 games), but still averaged 17.9. ppg and scored 20 or more points 17 times. He was a valuable mentor for the expansion Hannaryz. He had several terrific games for the first-year team.


Antoine Broxsie


The bottom line: The veteran center quietly had a quality season for John Neumann’s club.

The league’s No. 1 shot-blocker (2.9 blocks per game) and fifth-leading rebounder (12.3 rpg), Broxsie also scored 11.9 ppg.

* * * * *

The following players made Hoop Scoop’s Honorable Mention list:

• Ex-Apache center Nick Davis (12.5 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks; he was released in January after playing 16 games).

• Evessa forward David Palmer (14.4 ppg, 79.6 percent at the free-throw line, 37.6 percent on 3-pointers).

• Golden Kings guard Masashi Obuchi (10.5 ppg in 22 games).

• Phoenix center Dzaflo Larkai (70 percent shooting from field in 22 games). He made his season debut on Feb. 20.

• 89ers forward Josh Peppers (30 games, 20.2 ppg), one of the league’s best pickups after New Year’s Day, is a difficult defensive assignment for every team. It was a smart move by Sendai to bring him back for a second season.

• Broncos forward Kirby Lemons (15.4 ppg and 11.2 rpg; the league’s No. 8 rebounder) began the season as the Grouses’ best player.

As expected, though, Toyama began unloading its best players after the All-Star break and he wound up with the Broncos, for whom he previously played during the club’s JBL days.

Lemons’ 42-point, 30-rebound effort against Fukuoka in a 3OT game on Oct. 24 ranks as one of the greatest individual performances in league history.

• Phoenix guard Wayne Arnold (14.6 ppg and a league-best 40 percent on 3-point shots) gave his club a strong spark in the team’s final 25 games.

• HeatDevils guard Matt Lottich (14.2 ppg) helped turn the Kyushu club into a playoff contender. His arrival in early December was a smart signing by the Oita front office.

The team would be wise to bring him back for a full season. His game management skills are superb.


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