In the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ infancy, before the team made multiple championship game appearances, Shigeyuki Kinjo was one of the league’s most exciting, explosive Japanese backcourt stars.
The Okinawa native had a real gift for taking — and making — gutsy shots and a riverboat gambler’s flair to his game. He craved the pressure as a potent slashing/attacking scorer.
A Golden King since the team’s start in 2007, Kinjo averaged 13.2 points per game in Ryukyu’s title-winning campaign the next season. And he was off to a great start when the team began its title defense the next fall, averaging 18.0 points in the Kings’ first 12 games. Then he suffered a season-ending knee injury that would alter the course of his career.
Kinjo came back and posted a scoring average of 9.3 ppg for the 2010-11 season, appearing in 48 games. But he had to sit out the next season with further knee problems.
Now, 31, Kinjo has retooled his game over the past few seasons from his early days. He played in 32 games in 2012-13, 51 the next season and 43 in 2014-15, with modest scoring averages of 2.7, 5.5 and 3.6 ppg.
Scoring isn’t his first priority on a team loaded with talent and championship pedigree (three titles in total). Instead, Kinjo plays with energy, particularly defensive hustle, and within the system.
This season, Kinjo has increased his scoring output to 6.9 in 44 games with 11 double-digit scoring games to date. He’s knocked down 22 3-pointers and made 53.2 percent of his shots from inside the arc, playing 20.2 minutes a contest. He scored a season-high 20 points on March 20 against the Oita Ehime HeatDevils.
Ryukyu assistant coach Keith Richardson, who joined the team in 2008, witnessed the changes within Kinjo’s game due to injuries and his changing role on the team.
“His biggest adjustment was learning how to be a great high-level execution defender,” Richardson told The Japan Times this week. “If you ask any coach what they would take first on their team, a good offensive player or a great defensive player, and I think we all know that answer to that if they really want to win it all.”
In addition to his energy and hustle, the 183-cm Kinjo continues to make an impact in other ways.
“He is a great mentor to our young Japanese players like (Ryuichi) Kishimoto, (Morihisa) Yamauchi and (Shota) Tsuyama and helps them on the court in so many ways,” Richardson said. They really look up to him.”
“No one plays harder or makes more sacrifices than Shige,” he added. “He takes charges when most guys won’t and he guards players bigger than him and a lot of times the imports from opposing teams and takes lots of abuse due to the physical size disadvantage.”
Richardson described Kinjo as having “one of the biggest hearts in the game of basketball.”
The American-born coach commended Kinjo for his perseverance, hard work and determination, getting healthy and going through rehabilitation.
For Kinjo, “in order to repair it (the knee) properly and the recovery time was very significant, almost two seasons,” Richardson noted. “Rehab time took a while but he kept working.”
Physical and mental adjustments were equal components of Kinjo’s transformation.
“The biggest and hardest part of any player’s career adjustments is after an injury,” Richardson said, “to find ways to contribute to the team/game or your career will definitely be over. Kinjo did this with studying and learning more about the game of basketball than just being a scorer.”
“His execution level of the game increased dramatically and he learned that it’s the little things that make the biggest difference on the floor were the most important part of team basketball,” Richardson observed. “I have seen lots of guys just give up after injuries and not find other ways to contribute or just end their careers, not Shige.
“Obviously the biggest adjustment was he wasn’t as explosive on offense as he originally was so he needed to find other ways to contribute so he works endless hours on his mid-range game and he’s still a great wing transition runner.”
Because of his tremendous work ethic, Kinjo continues to hone his skills and grow as a player.
“No one works harder,” Richardson said. “He’s always the last to finish his workouts every day. . .”
Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix power forward Reggie Warren, who has competed against Kinjo’s team for most of the past decade, said the Ryukyu backcourt mainstay brings an important skill set to the perennial title contender.
“I think he plays with an edge and a confidence that’s typical in the Japanese players in Okinawa,” Warren told The Japan Times on Wednesday.
“Okinawa Japanese players always seemed to have a cocky swagger to them that just lets you know they are ready to bring it every single night. Kinjo is definitely one of those players.”
League accolades: Sendai forward Wendell White, a leading candidate for regular-season MVP, is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP.
White had 29 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists plus two steals and a block last Saturday against Aomori. In the series finale, the UNLV product delivered 22 points, 13 boards, two assists, a steal and a block.
White is the league’s No. 2 scorer (25.1 points) and tied for fourth in rebounding (12.3). He has double-doubles in 16 consecutive games.
East-leading Sendai (33-13) has won eight straight games.
On Wednesday, the league named Kishimoto the March MVP.
In Sunday’s game against Shiga, Kishimoto scored 41 points, a league record for Japanese players. He buried 8 of 12 3s in the game and helped the Golden Kings (34-10), who are in first place in the West, extend their winning streak to 11.
The 25-year-old Kishimoto averaged 18.9 points and 3.9 assists in eight March contests.
Upcoming games: The weekend action tips off on Friday, with Tokyo, riding a 35-game losing streak, playing host to Gunma in the series opener. On Saturday, the following matchups are slated to start: Akita vs. Fukushima, Saitama vs. Toyama, Hamamatsu vs. Iwate, Shiga vs. Kyoto, Nara vs. Shimane, Takamatsu vs. Ryukyu and Hiroshima, which has dropped a league-record 36 in a row, vs. Oita.
Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ed_odeven