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It’s early and the order will be shuffled and some players near the top will drop down, while others will rise.

But already, a solid mix of defenders have staked their claim as the league’s elite takeaway specialists, aka theft artists.

Through Monday, here are the league’s top seven in steals: Niigata’s Shunki Hatakeyama (2.5 per game), Hokkaido’s Asahi Tajima and Shibuya’s Kenta Hirose (2.2), Akita’s Kevin Palmer (2.0) and Tokyo’s Daiki Tanaka, Nagoya’s Seiya Funyu and Tochigi’s Jeff Gibbs (1.8).

Rounding out the top 10 are Hokkaido’s Yoshitake Matsushima and Ryota Sakurai and Chiba’s Michael Parker (1.7).

At the top of the list is a player still in the early stages of his career. The 170-cm Hatakeyama’s pro career began in the bj-league in 2013 as an early-entry player for the Osaka Evessa. As a rookie, he appeared in 10 games that season before seeing court time in 42 contest in the 2014-15 campaign.

Last season, the Miyagi Prefecture native joined the NBL’s Nishinomiya Storks (now of the B. League’s second division) and played in 50 games. He averaged 7.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.7 steals.

A scrappy, hustling backcourt energizer, Hatakeyama demonstrated last Saturday against the Toyama Grouses that he can provide a statistical boost for his team in a number of areas. A quick glance at the box score illustrates this point, as evidenced by his four points, six rebounds, seven assists and four steals in 25-plus productive minutes.

Hatakeyama has helped the Albirex (7-5), who are guided by first-year head coach Kazuhiro Shoji, win five consecutive games, with a series-closing overtime victory over the San-en NeoPhoenix on Oct 16 followed by back-to-back sweeps of the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Grouses.

Second-division spotlight on … Fighting Eagles Nagoya: Head coach Ryuji Watanabe’s club has the best record (11-1) in the 18-team B2.

So what are the Fighting Eagles consistently doing well?

They are No. 2 in the second division in points per game (79.2) and second in rebounds (49.2) and steals (7.4). They are fourth in blocks (3.8) and sixth in assists (12.4).

The aftermath: The Chiba Jets and Alvark Tokyo were both fined ¥500,000 by the B. League for the scuffle that took place in the first quarter of last Sunday’s series finale at Funabashi Arena, when both benches spilled out onto the court. It took game and league officials about 20 minutes to sort through the procedural stuff, including video replay footage, to finalize their decisions. The league announced the fines on Tuesday.

The Jets were left with six players following the brouhaha and the Alvark were down to seven.

It started as an encounter between Jets center Hilton Armstrong and Alvark small forward Shohei Kikuchi, then ballooned into a large ruckus.

Armstrong and Kikuchi received two-game bans and both were also fined ¥100,000.

Lottich update: First-year Valparaiso University head coach Matt Lottich leads the Crusaders into the new season on Saturday in an exhibition home game against the NCAA Division II Hillsdale College Chargers.

Lottich, a former Stanford University guard, played a starring role on the Osaka Evessa championship dynasty (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08) in the now-dissolved bj-league’s first three seasons.

Valparaiso will play host to Southern Utah on Nov. 11 in its first regular-season opener.

Upcoming schedule: The weekend action tips off on Saturday with the following two-game matchups: SeaHorses vs. Lakestars, Brex vs. Levanga, 89ers vs. Jets, B-Corsairs vs. Brave Thunders, Grouses vs. Sunrockers, Hannaryz vs. Diamond Dolphins, Golden Kings vs. Evessa and NeoPhoenix vs. Albirex BB. Meanwhile, the Alvark-Northern Happinets series at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 is set for Sunday and Monday.

Attendance report: This week, the league released attendance figures through the end of October. The list shows Chiba with the highest average for home games (4,595 fans), followed by Niigata (3,842), Tochigi (3,562), Ryukyu (3,475) and Yokohama (3,421). In the second division, the Kumamoto Volters lead the way (2,501).

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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