With four new teams joining the bj-league over the past two seasons, it has become a greater challenger to select Hoop Scoop’s Top 20 players. But it’s a worthwhile — and necessary — challenge. One that will become greater next June, following the first season with 20 teams, including four more new clubs.
Here’s the truth: The league office continues to do things the easy (and lazy) way, picking only a Best Five team and not recognizing a greater representation of its players for postseason accolades. And that’s a darn shame because the competition has gotten tougher and the players have had to adjust their game as new coaches (Euroleague legend Zeljko Pavlicevic of the Shimane Susanoo Magic and longtime NBA coach Bob Hill of the Tokyo Apache, for instance) have matched wits with established Japanese coaches, including Ryukyu’s Dai Oketani and Fukuoka’s Tadaharu Ogawa and an assorted cast of ever-changing bench bosses.
As the league grows, there’s greater opportunities to identify stars and role players who excel in different ways to help their teams. This includes the no-brainer addition of an all-defensive team, too.
Increased sophistication in analyzing and promoting talent is also vital step in the league’s growth. In the meantime, here’s one scribe’s third annual Top 20 list, highlighting the accomplishments of the league’s elite players.
1. Jeffrey Parmer. Statistics alone cannot measure the regular-season and Final Four MVP’s impact for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, who defended their championship on May 22 at Ariake Cosseum. Perhaps this statistic best sums up his value to the Eastern Conference powerhouse: The Phoenix had one — only one — two-game losing streak this season. He posted modest numbers, but always seemed to come up with a big 3-pointer, steal, assist, block or pair of free throws when his team needed it most. Parmer averaged 16.9 ppg, including a season-high output of 39.
2. Lynn Washington. The team made its first-ever coaching change and, as expected, the two-time MVP excelled under rookie head coach Ryan Blackwell, averaging 19.7 ppg, third-highest total in the league. Guiding the Evessa to a sixth consecutive Final Four appearance, Washington’s unmatched intensity and will to win were on display all season despite a number of key injuries and personnel changes on the team.
3. Gary Hamilton. The Shiga Lakestars power forward was a game-changing force with or without the ball. Though his scoring average was just 12.7 ppg, the University of Miami (Florida) product led the league in rebounds for a second straight season (15.2 per game), was fourth in assists (4.7; nearly unheard of for a power forward), fifth in steals (1.8) and eighth in minutes (1,497).
4. Kenny Satterfield. First with the Saitama Broncos and then with the Osaka Evessa after joining the Kansai club after the former’s season ended in mid-March, the ex-NBA floor leader showcased slick passing skills (a league-high 7.2 assists and 19.9 ppg) before switching teams. A terrific rebounder, he initiated fast breaks for both clubs and had a knack for getting to the foul line as well (278 shots in 37 games). Defensively, the lanky Satterfield covered a lot of ground and made life difficult for his foes. He scored a team-best 19.9 points for Saitama before joining the Evessa. He was the top passer in the league, adding an assist crown to his solid resume.
5. Michael Parker. Since the high-flying forward burst onto the scene in wintertime of the Rizing Fukuoka’s first season, he’s been a do-it-all catalyst for the Western Conference club. Parker topped the scoring charts (27.3 ppg) for the third straight season, led the league in steals for the fourth time (2.3) and finished seventh in rebounds (10.5). And, oh yeah, he was first in minutes played, averaging nearly 40 per game (1,963 minutes in 50 games)
6. Wayne Arnold. The Phoenix spark plug came off the bench and averaged 18.6 ppg, collecting the Sixth Man Award along the way. A determined competitor with terrific shooting mechanics, Arnold drained 112 of 281 3-pointers (39.9 percent) for the the champions.
7. Mike Bell. Moving from the Oita HeatDevils to the Sendai 89ers, the aggressive forward was a key ingredient in the 89ers’ second-place position, and the squad was primed for a bulldog fight for a spot in the Final Four before the March 11 earthquake ended those aspirations. Bell averaged a league-high 1.7 dunks per game, along with 18.4 points (ninth overall) and 1.3 blocks (tied for ninth).
8. Brandon Cole. The lone foreigner to remain with expansion club Miyazaki for the entire season, the frontcourt standout was the league’s No. 5 scorer (18.9 ppg) and third-leading board man (11.4 rpg) while playing 1,748 minutes, second only to Parker.
9. Mac Hopson. The weekend before the March 11 earthquake, this reporter witnessed the Sendai point guard pick apart the Saitama defense and earn trip after trip to the charity stripe in a 40-point outburst in the series finale. That was his and the 89ers’ final game of the 2010-11 season, and he finished it averaging 21.3 ppg (No. 2) and 5.6 assists (No. 2).
10. Jeral Davis. The Shimane center was an intimidating force in the middle, blocking a league-best 3.2 shots per game. Coming off the bench for 28 of 50 games, Davis averaged 10.0 ppg, but the quick-leaping, 216-cm big man was at his best protecting the basket. He rejected five or more shots in 16 contests, putting the expansion Susanoo Magic in position to win more games than most first-year clubs are capable of usually winning.
11. Takumi Ishizaki. The Shimane guard was methodical, efficient and poised while taking a leading role playing for Pavlicevic, who demands excellence from his charges. Ishizaki scored 12.5 ppg and was among the league’s top passers (4.7 apg, tied for fourth). He was often at his best when the team ran a set play for him, freeing him up to drive and shot or dish it off. Ishizaki finished the season with 206 assists and 100 turnovers, evidence of his ability to lead a young team to success.
12. Jeff Newton. The leader of the championship runnerup squad, Newton helped establish a winning tradition in Okinawa when he left the Evessa and moved on to the Golden Kings in 2008. Playing for a team with seven players who averaged 8.0 or more points, Newton didn’t have flashy statistics on offense (12.4 ppg), but did lead the team in rebounds, blocks and minutes.
13. Wendell White. Though he left Japan in March, there’s no denying the fact that the 2009-10 regular-season MVP was one of the top performers in 2010-11 for the Kyoto Hannaryz. He was the fourth-leading scorer (19.4 ppg) and made 54.7 percent from inside the 3-point arc. His 45-point Boxing Day outburst was one of the top individual games in the league this season.
14. Cohey Aoki. Fearless and confident as a scorer, the Tokyo Apache icon posted solid offensive numbers playing for his third head coach in as many seasons. His defensive hustle and positioning made big strides under coach Bob Hill as well. Aoki scored 12.3 ppg, shot 38.2 percent on 3s and 53.2 percent on 3-pointers. Hill often ran plays for Aoki and raved about his shooting skills, his preparation for the game and his importance to the team. Aoki also made very few careless mistakes (71 assists, 40 turnovers).
15. Mikey Marshall. Despite having three coaches over the past two seasons, the Shiga Lakestars have done enough things right to reach the playoffs both times. Marshall’s effective leadership and strong fundamentals have helped steer the franchise in the right direction. He paced Shiga with 18.1 ppg, 10th-highest output in the fledgling circuit.
16. Sek Henry. A season removed from starring at the University of Nebraska, Henry made a big jump to the pro ranks and made a major impact for the expansion Akita Northern Happinets. He was sixth in scoring (18.7 ppg), third in assists (5.0) and tied for ninth in steals (1.6). A 42-point performance in a double-OT game against the Apache on March 9 served as a giant notice that he can be a great player in this league for years to come, though he has room for improvement at the charity stripe (149-for-234).
17. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Reggie Warren (tie). The Kyoto teammates had pivotal roles in leading the team to its first playoff appearance, as did White. Abdul-Rauf’s classic shooting touch was as impressive as ever; he converted 81 of 91 free-throw attempts and 51.2 percent of his 2-point shots. What’s more, the 42-year-old former NBA standout scored 15.1 ppg, making 29 starts in 42 games. His 11-for-15 shooting display, including 6-for-7 on 3s, in a 28-point game on Dec. 19 provided a flashback to his All-American days at Louisiana State. Warren gave the Hannaryz a physical presence in the paint along with 13.4 points and 10.2 rebounds (No. 8 overall). His passing and defensive skills were also formidable.
18. Byron Eaton. Few players can make as smooth a transition from the starting lineup to a reserve role as the Tokyo floor leader did. Deceptively quick and strong as an NFL linebacker, Eaton overmatched foes as he drove to the hoop. The ex-NBA Development League guard scored 16.8 ppg. He appeared in 29 games (20 starts), and the Apache were 1-2 without him in their final three games of 2010-11 while he was injured. They were 7-2 with him coming off the bench as a backup. His shining moment of the season: A 25-point, six-steal, five-assist game on Feb. 22 against the Evessa, as Tokyo made a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
19. David Palmer and Anthony McHenry (tie). The Ryukyu teammates thrived in their respective roles for Dai Oketani’s club, with the former excelling as the team’s top 3-point scoring threat (45.4 percent on 3s, 13.5 ppg) and the latter serving as the team’s lockdown defender and arguably top athlete in the lineup (11.1 ppg along with 6-plus rebounds, 3-plus assists; he was the team leader in steals). McHenry’s long wingspan and leaping ability can be game-changing factors time after time.
20. Masashi Joho. Energy and intensity are his trademarks, with a healthy dose of excitement, too. When the Lakestars shooting guard brings his “A” game, his team usually thrives. In the league’s formative years, few Japanese players have had the offensive creativity that Joho possesses, and his play has flourished as a result. He averaged 13.1 ppg and had nine 20-point performances.
The next nine
* Apache center Robert Swift (13.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg), getting stronger as the season marched on, the former NBA player appeared ready to lead Tokyo to the Final Four. The 216-cm pivotman’s workmanship and understanding of Hill’s system — he had played for the veteran mentor in Seattle — helped set the tone for the Apache. We’ll never know what might’ve been if the team had played a full season and participated in the playoffs, but stopping Swift was no easy task around the basket. Case in point: In back-to-back games before the March 11 earthquake, Swift had 22-point, 18-rebound and 21-point, 16-board performances against the Happinets. In short, he’s one of the best all-around centers in league history.
* Will Graves. A terrific midseason pickup by Akita coach Bob Pierce, the former University of North Carolina Tar Heel had a stellar 16-game season for the Happinets, averaging 22.2 ppg, including a 41-point outburst against Niigata.
* Chris Holm. A rock in the middle for the Sendai 89ers. Averaging 14.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, Holm was a consummate team player for the Tohoku club.
* Tsubasa Yonamine. Hard to ignore the Golden Kings floor leader’s stats: 233 assists, 61 turnovers. Quietly, he gets the job done.
* Billy Knight. A professional scorer, the smooth-shooting lefty averaged 17.1 ppg and hauled in more than six rebounds per contest, proving to be a wise offseason acquisition for the Evessa.
* Reggie Golson. The Susanoo Magic forward had team-high totals in scoring (17.2 ppg), as well as rebounds and steals. When he was on top of his game, the Magic were a very, very tough team.
* Brian Harper. The All-Star forward was the Toyama Grouses’ best player — tied for seventh in scoring at 18.6 ppg and No. 9 in rebounds (10.1) — before opting to leave Japan in March.
* Taishiro Shimizu. Joining his hometown team for its inaugural season, the longtime Broncos playmaker had a strong season for the Miyazaki Shining Suns. He averaged 11.5 ppg, made 84 of 109 free throws, drilled 89 3-pointers (35.3 percent), collected 66 steals and ran the offense as a starter, playing in 50 games. Shimizu dished out 222 assists and turned the ball over 68 times; impressive numbers for the team captain.
* Matt Lottich. The Oita point guard was the HeatDevils’ most consistent player and put up solid numbers for a team decimated by the loss of three American players after the aforementioned earthquake and a coaching change at that time. Averaging 16.0 ppg, Lottich had a greater than 2:1 assist-turnover ratio (205 assists, 90 turnovers) and was a potent threat to take over any game at the offensive end, as evidenced by his 13-for-20 shooting, including 7-for-10 from long range, for 33 points against Osaka in a one-point Oita loss on Nov. 28.
A number of players are also in the conversation about the league’s top players, including the following:
* Albirex rookie Willie Veasley. His defense, offensive explosiveness and all-around athleticism made him one of the toughest matchups in the league before he returned to the States after the earthquake.
* Albirex big man Julius Ashby (16.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg). He’s been an All-Star with three different franchises.
* Lakestars forward Josh Peppers (17.1 ppg in 15 games). He’s one of only a few players to suit up for four different teams in the league’s first six seasons.
* Rizing guard Akitomo Takeno (10.2 ppg, league-leading 46.0 percent on 3s). He’s a rising star whose confidence seemed to grow after he left Niigata and returned to Fukuoka. He can score points in bunches and in a hurry, reminding one of ex-Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson; Takeno, however mostly started this season.
* Rizing guard Nile Murry (16.0 ppg and more than 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists). A talented backcourt leader with underrated all-around skills.
*Apache guard Jumpei Nakama (11.6 ppg) flourished at times as a spot-up shooter, gaining noticeable in his offensive abilities in Hill’s NBA-style offense. He made 74 of 200 3s and 50 percent of his 2-point shots, growing into an important part of Hill’s three-guard Japanese backcourt starting lineup late in the season. His career-high 32 point effort, including 7 of 12 on 3s, on Feb. 5, was evidence of his growth as a player.
*Apache guard Kensuke Tanaka was an afterthought in the 2009-10 season playing under Motofumi Aoki, essentially just a practice player. But Hill molded him into a productive starter who had become one of the league’s better Japanese players by late winter. He’s no longer a secret and appears poised for a breakout season in 2011-12. Tanaka handed out 82 assists with 49 turnovers in the stat book. He buried 41 of 110 3s and grew in confidence under Hill’s tutelage, averaging 6.6 ppg.
*Apache power forward Jeremy Tyler’s rebound production (210 rebounds in 523 minutes) was stellar. His propensity for picking up quick fouls and turning the ball over, though, were reminders of his age (19) during the season. Still, in 33 games, he was a solid point-getter (9.9 ppg) and regularly attacked the hoop (32 dunks).
*Five Arrows guard Satoshi Takeda (10.7 ppg, 49.8 percent on 2-point shots). A gutsy rebounder and hard-nosed player at both ends of the floor, he’s one of the top Japanese players in the league.
*Five Arrows guard Hiroyuki Kikuchi (10.7 ppg, 71 3-pointers). He’s an underrated perimeter scorer.
*Five Arrows guard Rasheed Sparks (11.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg), a popular player in this league who missed the season’s final two months with injuries. Sparks’ poor 3-point shooting (53-for-223) dropped him from top 20 consideration this season.
*Golden Kings shooting guard Naoto Kosuge (10.5 ppg, 85 3-pointers), whose defensive tenacity was overlooked during his long tenure with Niigata. He resurrected his career moving on to Ryukyu this season. Terrific pickup for GM Tatsuro Kimura’s club.
*Golden Kings forward Carlos Dixon (15.9 ppg), who led the squad in scoring, filling a role that somebody had to embrace.
*Shining Suns forward Elijah Palmer (17.9 ppg), proved he can be a force in this league.
*Shining Suns swingman Jackie Manuel (18.0), capable of putting up big numbers in the stat book every game and one of the league’s elite defenders.
*Lakestars guard Yu Okada had a relatively quiet season (8.1 ppg and 62-for-209 on 3s) after four campaigns in Takamatsu. No one said playing for the hometown team wouldn’ｔ be a pressured-packed situation. Okada can do better.
*Evessa center Tseng Wen-ting, a fundamentally sound player who gave Osaka a spark in his short stint with the club, blocking shots, pulling down offensive boards, scoring on putbacks, setting picks, doing a little bit of everything. The Evessa, or another bj-league team, would be wise to sign the Taiwanese post player for 2011-12.
* Broncos forward Kazuya Hatano is no stranger to bj-league fans. Affectionately known as “J.,” the best Japanese rebounder in bj-league history scored 9.6 ppg for Bob Nash’s club and pulled down 170 boards. Hatano’s size and strength separate him from most of the league’s native players, and his ability to affect the game using hustle and muscle are significant.
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