Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Improved play has Fukuoka back in playoff race

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

There’s no magic formula for the Rizing Fukuoka to swiftly climb in the Western Conference standings.

But first-year coach Tomohiro Moriyama’s club has made steady progress in recent weeks. The Rizing improved to 10-14 on Sunday after a 71-66 victory over the visiting Aomori Wat’s gave them a weekend split.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Moriyama credited his team’s patience for the entire 40 minutes to execute its plays. “We want to step up as tightly as possible” for 40 minutes, he added.

By posting a 5-5 record in its last 10 games, Fukuoka has pulled within four games of .500. This happened after a dismal stretch in which the Rizing lost eight of nine games between Oct. 24 and Nov. 21, including the last seven in that span.

Forward Josh Peppers leads the club in scoring (15.8 points) and perennial All-Star guard Cohey Aoki is No. 2 (11.1). Aoki is the league’s top free-throw shooter (95.7 percent) through Sunday.

Newcomers Donnavan Kirk and Bingo Merriex are averaging 9.9 and 9.5 points a game, respectively, with Keisuke Takabatake contributing 9.6.

Not to be overlooked, though, is backcourt leader Taishiro Shimizu, who, like Aoki, has been a key contributor since the league’s inception. He had suited up for the Saitama Broncos, Miyazaki Shining Suns and Oita HeatDevils before joining the Rizing this season.

A six-time All-Star, Shimizu, 34, gives Fukuoka another scoring option and is a capable passer (entering this season, he had 1,639 career assists and 741 turnovers). He averaged 10.1 points over the previous 10 seasons.

Shimizu checks in at 8.3 points a game just two games shy of the season’s midway point.

The Rizing have won the last three games in which Shimizu has scored in double digits: 15 on Sunday (against Aomori), 11 on Dec. 13 (against Tokyo) and 14 on Nov. 22 (against Takamatsu).

When Fukuoka gets Shimizu involved on offense, it can only open up space for other players to get the ball and make things happen. He’ll also continue to be a key component of the team’s push to secure a playoff spot.

In a 2011 interview, one bj-league referee who requested anonymity, offered this analysis of Shimizu: “He plays with fire and isn’t afraid. He’ll take the big shots if needed and doesn’t pass up open jumpers. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t had the opportunity to play on any contending teams. I think he would make a big contribution in Osaka or Shiga.”

League accolade: Toyama Grouses forward Duke Crews, who helped his club earn a sweep over the Kanazawa Samuraiz last weekend, is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, the league announced.

Crews, a Bowie State alum, had 28 points and 11 rebounds in the series opener on Saturday. He contributed 27 points on 11-for-11 shooting and 11 boards in the rematch.

He is Toyama’s second-leading scorer (17.1 points).

Keen insight: Asked who are the three most exciting Japanese players in the 24-team league, Iwate Big Bulls big man Abdullahi Kuso selected veteran guards Masashi Joho of the Toyama Grouses, Shigehiro Taguchi of the Akita Northern Happinets and Takehiko Shimura of the Sendai 89ers.

■ On Joho: “He has the best all-around offensive game,” Kuso, a Gonzaga University product, told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

■ On Taguchi: “He really understands how to use screens, has a very quick release and he has a killer instinct.”

■ On Shimura: “He’s a pit bull on defense. He never backs down.”

Roster moves: Well-traveled perimeter marksman Wayne Arnold is returning to the bj-league to play for the Shiga Lakestars.

The Western Conference squad announced the deal on Tuesday.

The 32-year-old Arnold has starred for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (2009-12), Lakestars (2012-13) and Iwate Big Bulls (2014-15).

Arnold, who attended Tennessee State, is scheduled to make his season debut for Shiga on Jan. 10 against Gunma.

After his previous stint with the Lakestars, Arnold played in Angola.

Arnold, a potent shooter, helped the Big Bulls reach the Final Four for the first time in franchise history last spring. He appeared 14.1 points in 51 regular-season games.

“Best overall shooter in this league. No doubt about it,” bj-league observer Wolfy Nishioka said of Arnold in a 2011 email to The Japan Times.

Upcoming schedule: The Yokohama-Ryukyu series tips off on Christmas Day with a 7 p.m. start.

The rest of the weekend’s action begins a day later, with the following matchups on the docket: Aomori vs. Shiga, Iwate vs Kyoto, Akita vs. Fukuoka, Sendai vs. Kanazawa, Toyama vs. Oita Ehime, Gunma vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa, Osaka vs. Fukushima, Nara vs. Saitama, Shimane vs. Shinshu and Takamatsu vs. Niigata.

Now a Globetrotter: High-flying forward Larriques “Beast” Cunningham, who won the 2012-13 All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest while representing now-defunct Miyazaki, recently joined the Harlem Globetrotters.

In anticipation of their 2016 world tour, the Globetrotters issued a news release that highlighted the team’s four new players, including Cunningham.

“We can’t wait to hit the floor and celebrate our 90th year with families around the world,” Globetrotters legend Sweet Lou Dunbar, the team’s director of player personnel said in a statement, “and we are excited about what these outstanding rookies will bring to the court to help us give our wonderful fans memories that will last a lifetime.”

The 195-cm Cunningham attended NAIA school Lee University (Tennessee) before embarking on a pro career that’s included stops in the NBA Development League, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp