A season ago, established stars Nick Fazekas and Naoto Tsuji set the tone for the then-Toshiba Brave Thunders in the final NBL season. From a statistical standpoint, they were the driving force behind the team’s championship.
Consider the dynamic duo’s performances in the decisive Game 5 of the NBL Finals against the Aisin SeaHorses in early June: Fazekas put 21 points on the board and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Tsuji, the series MVP, scored 20 points and made three steals.
Now, during the B. League’s first campaign, the 211-cm Fazekas, and to an extension his team, now called the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, is bolstered by the complementary skills of power forward Ryan Spangler.
Just ask Fazekas.
“Ryan’s been huge for us this year, and he’s been an upgrade from what we had last year,” Fazekas told reporters last Friday in a post-game interview. “So it’s been a big plus for us this year to be able to rely on Ryan for certain times and he’s been able to score baskets for us and rebound.”
Fazekas, who mans the middle for the Kanto powerhouse squad, leads the 18-team top flight in scoring (28.4 points) by a wide margin. Niigata’s Davante Gardner is No. 2 (21.8). Fazekas is third overall in rebounds (11.7).
Like Fazekas, Spangler, a former University of Oklahoma forward, is a threat to post a double-double every game. He’s contributing 13.4 points and 9.5 rebounds for Kawasaki, which enters the final weekend of 2016 with a league-best 23-4 record.
What’s more, both Brave Thunders players are impressively efficient scorers. They don’t just fire up shots without a purpose. There’s a plan.
Fazekas has made 60.6 percentage of his shots from the field. Broken down by location, that’s 47.6 percent on 3-pointers and 62.5 percent from inside the arc. And if you’re concocting a game plan to face coach Takuya Kita’s club, you don’t want to send Big Nick to the foul line — he’s a 78.9 percent shooter.
Spangler, whose high-energy style of play is infectious, has converted 148 of 212 2-point shots, or 69.8 percent.
Fazekas is a crafty scorer, releasing shots from a variety of angles to keep defenders guessing.
“It’s something I work on in practice every day,” he said. “I know I’m not going to shoot the same shot over and over again, so when I’m at practice and after practice, I try to shoot a bunch of different shots in a bunch of different situations so that when I get in the game it just feels like second nature.”
During his college career at the University of Nevada, Fazekas said he had solid range on his shot, but admitted “my range has probably gotten a little bit better since I became a professional (in 2007 with the Dallas Mavericks), but I just try to think every shot that I shoot, no matter the angle, no matter the balance, no matter whatever, it’s going to go in.”
Speaking to reporters, Kita noted that the Brave Thunders relied heavily on Tsuji and Fazekas to carry the offensive load last season. But Spangler’s arrival has helped reduce those demands.
“Ryan is able to alleviate some of the pressure from Tsuji and I,” commented Fazekas, who joined the Brave Thunders in 2012.
“Last year, it was just Tsuji and I so much that defenses tried to key in on us, and we were able to win. But having Ryan as that third option and to be able to go get us a double-double every other night or every third night, it’s huge, because it’s (a lot of) points that we didn’t get last year. It’s just a big upgrade for us.”
The team’s Big Two has been supplanted by a new Big Three. And that has helped Tsuji keep productive, averaging 10.9 points per game. Their collective star power has keyed the team’s league-best offense) 85.9 points a game), which is made possible by a league-high 18.1 assists.
Fazekas, meanwhile, downplays the notion that the team relies on him too much.
“It may seem like that,” he said. “But I think the guys sort of feed off of me and get energy from me and see that if I’m going, we’re going as a team. . . . I think the team realizes, ‘If Nick touches it, something good is probably going to happen.’ And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“I think there’s probably a lot of teams that are built that way, or a lot of championship teams that are built that way. . . . And that’s kind of how we operate over here.”
The Alvark Tokyo ended the Brave Thunders’ 15-game winning streak on Christmas Eve, recording a 106-92 triumph before 3,727 at Todoroki Arena. A day earlier, the announced attendance was 4,789 at the Kawasaki venue.
Those respectable crowds have not gone unnoticed by Fazekas.
“Man, it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s just a totally different atmosphere. It’s so much fun to play in front of people. Compared to like what he had last year, we hardly had anyone come to the games. It almost felt like a scrimmage. But this year for us to do what we do and have the fans feed off of us, and we feed off of them. It’s huge. But 4,700 people, was a lot, man. I wish we could play in front of it every night.”
The Brave Thunders will represent the B. League against the Korean Basketball League’s Anyang KGC in the East Asia Club Championship on Jan. 14 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
Brex talk: Tochigi coach Tom Wisman’s team earned back-to-back home wins over the pesky Yokohama B-Corsairs on Christmas weekend to raise its record to 20-5. He described the victories as Christmas presents, noting his team had a let-up in both games in the second half.
“(But) we’ll enjoy the wins and we’ll continue to work to get better,” Wisman said.
Wisman also cited the Brex’s 72-70 road loss to the Kyoto Hannaryz on Dec. 18, when his team squandered an 18-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Learning how to play strong with a lead — protecting a lead with consistently play — will be a focal point of Tochigi’s work in the coming weeks, according to Wisman.
“We don’t feel good about that yet,” he said.
He added: “But the good part is we are capable of building leads. We can’t continue to be Jekyll and Hyde; we’ve got to be who we are for 40 minutes a game.”
Power forward Ryan Rossiter has been a hallmark of consistency for the Brex. Exhibit A: He delivered a stellar 20-point, 22-rebound effort, including 10 offensive boards, on Christmas Day, and leads the league in rebounding (13.5).
Is Wisman offering any advice to make Rossiter an even better rebounder?
“We try to put him in the right position within the offense. He’s a good offensive rebounder,” the coach said. “Our offense is designed to have him and Jeff (Gibbs) and Kosuke (Takeuchi) in the right positions, and Ryan understands that very well.
“And then defensively it’s just a matter of maintaining focus and getting a body on people. We’re leading the league in rebounding (44.6 a game) and we’re not the biggest team, but we have people that work on that every day to where we’re making sure we get a body on box outs and rebound as a team. But Ryan just understands that better than most players.”
Upcoming schedule: The Osaka-Sendai and Akita-Toyama series began on Thursday. On Friday, the weekend openers are Chiba vs. Kawasaki, Shiga vs. San-en, Nagoya vs. Tochigi and Hokkaido vs. Ryukyu.
The Tokyo-Niigata series is slated to start on New Year’s Day, while the Yokohama-Kyoto two-game set will commence on Tuesday.
Still making an impact: SeaHorses Mikawa forward J.R. Sakuragi, now 40, is second in the league in assists (3.9). The former UCLA and NBA player has 104 assists and 40 turnovers. He’s scoring 10.7 points and grabbing 6.9 rebounds a game.
The last word: “I’m a real believer in rebounding is as important a skill as scoring, Which we often talk about in close ball games that the biggest play might not be the basket that we got but the rebound that we got.” — Wisman
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5