Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Fukushima's Karimata capitalizes on opportunity

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Fukushima Firebonds management achieved its first victory by establishing a pro basketball team for the residents of the Tohoku prefecture.

Victory No. 2, more symbolic in the annals of sports, came on Sunday in the team’s second regular-season game.

The result? The first-year franchise edged the Aomori Wat’s 66-64 in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, giving head coach Hiroki Fujita’s team an important first step as it builds its foundation.

During the season-opening series against the Wat’s, Firebonds point guard Masaya Karimata, a backup with the Ryukyu Golden Kings last season, was one of the home team’s top performers. He had six points and 10 assists on Saturday, and replicated both totals a day later. The 26-year-old also collected three steals over the weekend.

Fukushima forward Edward Morris said Karimata’s impact did not go unnoticed.

“As for a point guard (dishing out) 10 assists, I’m loving it,” Morris, who had 18 points and three steals in Sunday’s triumph, told The Japan Times. “Obviously his role has changed drastically over last season. And I know he is up for the challenge. I see him playing a big part in our team’s success this season. He’s aware of it.”

Karimata was a role player in his first two bj-league seasons, seeing action in 51 games for the champion Golden Kings in 2013-14, with six starts and 596 total minutes. His 20 assists to date are 18 shy of his grand total from a season ago.

The 178-cm Karimata played for the Chiba Jets, now an NBL squad, in 2012-13. In 32 games, he made four starts and averaged 1.1 points. He had 27 assists and 27 turnovers for the Jets.

If the opening weekend of the season is any indication, Karimata is primed to play a prominent role as a floor leader and contributor for the Firebonds. And the fans — near and far — will be paying attention.

One hoop fanatic from Okinawa, who has traveled the country to attend games for many years, told The Japan Times she made the journey to Koriyama for the series opener to root for the Firebonds’ three players from Japan’s southernmost islands: guards Karimata, Tomoyuki Shinzato and Akihiro Onaga.

The avid basketball supporter also took notice of Karimata’s two 10-assist games and tweeted about them after Sunday’s historic Fukushima triumph, while stating that many Okinawans still wish that he played for the Golden Kings.

“We Okinawans really miss him, but we are happy about his great performance and contributions,” she tweeted.

Fukushima center James Hughes was the top scorer (21 points) in the team’s opening game, with 11 rebounds and three blocks. Frontcourt mate Terrance Shannon had 15 points and 15 rebounds in his first game. Morris, a high-flying dunker with Tokyo last season, added 13 points and nine rebounds, and Takumi Masuko added 10 points.

Shannon, a Virignia Commonwealth product, also notched a double-double (25 points, 12 rebounds) on Sunday.

Getting to know . . . Damian Saunders: The Amori Wat’s newcomer was featured in Joe Palladino’s column (“World hoops traveler,” declared the headline) in the Republican-American, a Waterbury, Connecticut, newspaper, earlier this week.

Saunders, 25, attended high school in Waterbury before enrolling at Duquesne University, where he became the first (and only) player in NCAA men’s basketball history with more than 250 assists (281), steals (277) and blocks (300).

The 203-cm forward played for the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Sioux Falls Skyforce and Delaware 87ers before joining Aomori.

Among the notable snippets in Palladino’s column: “When I started out I was still a kid at heart who didn’t want to be far from family and friends,” Saunders, a sociology major in college, was quoted as saying. “But now, in my fourth year as a professional, I realize I’m much more than an athlete. I am a role model to inner-city youth who pursue the same dream.”

League accolades: Tokyo guard Yuji Ide, who knocked down 8 of 10 3-pointers in the Cinq Reves’ series sweep against host Saitma last wekend is the Lawson Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Wednesday.

Ide drained three 3s in a 15-point effort on Saturday in a 90-75 triumph. He had a game-high 29 points, including five 3s, in a 10-point win the next day. He made two steals in both games.

Upcoming schedule: All 22 teams are in action this weekend. There are 10 Saturday-Sunday series, plus Tokyo-Toyama to be held Sunday and Monday in Hachioji, Tokyo Prefecture.

The other matchups are as follows: Iwate vs. Fukushima, Akita vs. Sendai, Niigata vs. Saitama, Gunma vs. Shiga, Yokohama vs. Shinshu, Nara vs. Osaka, Shimane vs. Hamamatsu, Takamatsu vs. Ryukyu, Fukuoka vs. Kyoto and Oita vs. Aomori.

It’s official: As reported by The Japan Times on Tuesday, the Firebonds have signed guard Verdell Jones III, an Indiana University product.

The team announcement was made on Thursday.

“I am excited to be here and can’t wait to start playing and helping our team win,” Jones said in a statement issued by the team.

Jones played for the Oita HeatDevils during the past two seasons.

Did you know?: On opening day for the league’s 10th season, there were 87 foreign players listed on the 22 teams’ rosters.

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