The Akita Northern Happinets (14-4) have played nearly one-third of their 52-game schedule, and forward Richard Roby is having an MVP-caliber season.
Roby is among the league’s top 10 in four categories: scoring (18.7 points per game, seventh overall), assists (4.0, tied for 10th), steals (2.3, first) and blocks (1.4, tied for fifth). He also leads the Happinets in minutes (533), 2-point makes (131), 2-point attempts (219), free-throw makes (39), free-throw attempts (65), turnovers (49) and personal fouls (41).
In other words, Roby is an omnipresent figure on the court.
“Rich is having a very good season so far and we need him to continue to play well for our team to have success this season,” Akita forward Ruben Boykin told The Japan Times on Monday.
“He is one of the most versatile players in the league, the stats show that. And I’m pretty sure other players and coaches recognize that as well.”
Last season, Roby, half-brother of longtime NBA big man Kenyon Martin, came off the bench for the Happinets and thrived in that role, helping the team reach the title game against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, who claimed the championship. The Colorado University alum was named the 2013-14 Sixth Man Award winner after averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 50 games.
This season, under first-year coach Makoto Hasegawa, who replaced the retired Kazuo Nakamura, Roby has been elevated to starter. And he’s thriving in that role.
“I’m happy he’s playing well this year, and his rebounding is even up from last year,” said Boykin, a starter last season who’s now a top reserve. “Last year, he probably would’ve done more if he had more playing time, so having him as a starter has improved his overall game.”
Roby said he’s welcomed the challenge of stepping up his game as a starter.
“I knew I had to expand my game from last year if we wanted to have the same success,” he told this newspaper in a Monday interview.
“Without Yuki (Togashi) and Chas (McFarland), I knew I had to be more of an all-around player.”
Togashi, a guard, is now with the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends, while McFarland, a center, had signed with Uruguayan team Olimpia in the preseason, but isn’t with it now.
A coach’s growth: Hasegawa has guided Akita to 13 wins in its past 15 games. The Happinets’ 11-game win streak was snapped on Nov. 22 against Ryukyu, and they dropped the series finale a day later, too. Akita rebounded with back-to-back wins over Gunma last weekend.
The series against the Golden Kings was a good test for the Happinets, according to Boykin.
“Playing Okinawa helped us as a team,” he stated. “We learned what we need to work on.”
Specifically, Boykin pointed out that Hasegawa used those defeats as a learning tool for the coaching staff and players.
“The whole staff is young, but I think he learned a lot from the Okinawa games, because of some of the in-game adjustments their coach, (Tsutomu Isa), made in important stretches of the games,” Bokyin said. “The following Tuesday he made some adjustments with our team and our offense and defense, and as the season progresses, so will Hasegawa’s coaching.
“He’s doing a good job so far.”
Perhaps one helpful factor is this: The Akita coach keeps an open line of communication with his players and staff.
“He listens to his players a lot and to his assistant coach, Joe Cook,” Boykin observed.
Record-breaking streak: With 16 consecutive victories, Iwate which leads the East with a 17-1 mark, has set a league record. The previous mark was shared by three teams: Niigata (2005-06 season), Hamamatsu (2010-11) and Ryukyu (2012-13).
Upcoming schedule: Tokyo’s home series against Osaka tips off on Friday. The rest of the weekend’s action begins on Saturday. The rundown: Akita vs. Shiga, Sendai vs. Nara, Niigata vs. Takamatsu, Shinshu vs. Toyama, Saitama vs. Iwate, Yokohama vs. Gunma, Shimane vs. Aomori, Fukuoka vs. Hamamatsu, Oita vs. Kyoto and Ryukyu vs. Fukushima.
The playmaker: Nara point guard Tatsuya Suzuki, who shares the league lead in assists (5.9 per game) with Fukushima’s Verdell Jones III, has increased his assist total in each of the past five games. In that span, he’s doled out four, six, nine, 11 and 14 helpers.
League accolades: Iwate’s Scootie Randall, the league’s leading scorer (23.6 ppg), was chosen as the November MVP, the league announced on Wednesday.
The Temple University product averaged 24.1 points in 10 November games, as the Big Bulls went 10-0.
The Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award went to Kyoto forward Kevin Kotzur, who posted back-to-back double-doubles in a sweep of Shinshu last weekend.
The former NBA D-League player had 23 points on 11-for-14 shooting with 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in the series opener. He followed that performance with 25 points and was 10-for-13 from the floor with 15 boards, three assists and one block a day later.
Kotzur attended NCAA Division II St. Mary’s University (Texas).
Thoughts on the suspension: FIBA’s suspension of the Japan Basketball Association last week for its failure to present a merger plan for the bj-league and rival NBL by Oct. 31, among other reasons, has triggered numerous reactions and comments by players, coaches, fans and media.
Former Yokohama star Justin Burrell, the league’s 2011-2 regular-season MVP who now plays for the NBL’s Chiba Jets, weighed in on the issue.
“Well, I think it is unfortunate that the JBA was unable to come to a suitable conclusion,” Burrell told The Japan Times. “Basketball has inspired so many people, including myself, I would love for it to continue to inspire people in Japan.
“A great way to do that would have been for the Japanese national teams to compete in the Olympic Games,” he added, commenting on the possible loss of that opportunity in 2016 due to the penalty. “People of all ages getting to watch basketball at its highest level. Men and women from their own backyards. Showing young children that it can be done, seeing is believing.
“It is sad that Japan will (maybe) miss out on a great opportunity to inspire its youth. I pray that there is still a chance to make this happen.”
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