Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Rookie sensation Nash raising profile with Firebonds

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Fukushima Firebonds forward Le’Bryan Nash has been the league’s premier scorer this season.

His professional basketball career started with 30-plus points in each of his first four games in October, followed by a 47-point outburst in game No. 5.

On Jan. 24, Nash earned All-Star Game MVP honors with a 25-point performance in Sendai. On Feb. 28, he rewrote the league’s single-game scoring record, dropping 54 points on the host Shinshu Brave Warriors.

The Firebonds, meanwhile, are heading to the playoffs for the second time in as many seasons, and Nash has been a big part of their success story. He takes a league-best 26.8 points per game average into the final weekend of the regular season, when the Firebonds (29-21) travel to face the Gunma Crane Thunders (21-29).

Sendai star Wendell White, a former league MVP, is averaging 25.5 ppg and Gunma’s Thomas Kennedy is No. 3 on the scoring chart at 24.6.

For Nash, accomplishing these feats as a rookie — helping his team secure a playoff spot and leading the league in scoring since opening weekend — have raised his profile as a basketball player beyond Japan’s shores.

“Nash has had an outstanding season . . . (and) the fact that he’s a rookie makes it even more impressive,” Shinshu forward Mike Bell told The Japan Times this week. “Most players that are young always have potential to become even greater because of the (possible) years ahead of them that they can continue to play, learn and work for.”

So far, so good. The Oklahoma State alum has 18 double-doubles this season, with a season-high 16 rebounds on Oct. 25 against Sendai. He notched a triple-double on Nov. 28, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Twice this season Nash has attempted 25 free throws in a game. The first time? His season debut on Oct. 3 against Yokohama.

His scoring prowess is a staple of Fukushima’s winning recipe. He’s been held to single digits in scoring only once (a nine-point game on Dec. 6 against Kyoto). He’s scored 30-39 points in 14 games and topped the 40-point mark in three others, including 42 last Saturday against Sendai.

Across the board, Nash’s shooting numbers are solid: 31.9 percent in 3-point shooting, 50.7 percent from inside the arc and 70.6 percent at the free-throw line.

Nash said in December that he worked out for “13 or 14 NBA teams” before the 2015 NBA Draft. Now, with a season of pro basketball experience, he’s also gained valuable knowledge about what it takes to succeed in an overseas league.

In the weeks ahead, it will be interesting to see how Nash’s plans for the 2016-17 season materialize.

Will he return to the Firebonds?

Is re-signing him a top priority for the club?

A team spokesperson on Tuesday declined to comment on the latter question in an email sent by The Japan Times.

But Nash has raised his stock among basketball talent evaluators, and will have more options to showcase his talents during the summer and the upcoming season.

“With what he’s accomplished this year, I’m sure he has made enough noise to get recognition from other elite leagues around the world, including the NBA,” Bell said. “This summer I can definitely see him getting attention from NBA teams and getting invites to work out for teams and also play for their Summer League team, and from there his chance will be just as good as the next man.”

League accolade: Osaka’s Olu Ashaolu excelled in the Evessa’s weekend sweep of the Oita Ehime HeatDevils.

The veteran power forward is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP.

He had 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field, including three dunks, with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in the series opener, a 121-71 Evessa victory.

On Sunday, a day before his 28th birthday, Ashaolu was 8-for-8 from the field and 6-for-8 from the free-throw line en route to 23 points. The University of Oregon alum grabbed 14 rebounds in Osaka’s 109-81 win.

Ashaolu is Osaka’s leading scorer (14.4 ppg).

Upcoming games: The final weekend of the regular season tips off on Friday night, when Tokyo (4-46) plays host to Yokohama (18-32) in Chuo Ward.

The rest of the weekend matchups, starting on Saturday, are as follows: the aforementioned Gunma-Fukushima series, Sendai (36-14) vs. Akita (34-16), Niigata (33-17) vs. Iwate (29-21), Toyama (37-13) vs. Aomori (23-27), Shinshu (25-25) vs. Saitama (5-45), Shiga (33-17) vs. Takamatsu (11-39), Shimane (37-13) vs. Hamamatsu (34-16), Fukuoka (18-32) vs. Nara (17-33), Oita (16-34) vs. Kanazawa (27-23), Hiroshima (1-49) vs. Kyoto (39-11) and Ryukyu (39-11) vs. Osaka (34-16).