The art of the pass isn’t in vogue like rapid-fire 3-point shooting at any juncture, but there are a number of gifted ball-distribution artists in the B. League. And like Christmas cards, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Just ask any of the high-scoring stars who are recipients of those passes in arenas from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Indeed, the league’s passing talent was on full display over the weekend
Shiga’s Narito Namizato had a league-record 14 assists on Friday against Shimane.
Two days later, Toyama’s Naoki Uto equaled the record with an impressive Christmas Eve performance against Niigata. (Initially, Uto was credited with 13 assists and 19 points. The B. League issued a statement on Wednesday in which Uto’s assist total was amended to 14.)
Indeed, Uto has emerged as one of the league’s rising stars, first under ex-coach Bob Nash last season and current Grouses mentor Miodrag Rajkovic. Here are Uto’s assist totals from his past 10 games: 10, six, seven, eight, four, eight, eight, eight, seven and 14. At any level, that’s elite-level playmaking, folks.
Also Sunday, Shibuya’s Morihisa Yamauchi dished out 11 helpers. Mikawa’s ageless point forward J.R. Sakuragi had 23 points and nine dimes against Kyoto, while his counterpart Tatsuya Ito doled out 10 assists for the Hannaryz.
Draelon Burns boosted the Nishinomiya offense with 27 points and 10 assists on Dec. 20 and Kei Igarashi, Niigata’s flashy offensive quarterback, had 10 assists on Dec. 4.
Through Sunday, the top-flight’s top five in assists includes Namizato (7.16), Uto (7.15), Chiba’s Yuki Togashi 5.77), Sakuragi (5.38) and Igarashi (5.35).
Other noted playmakers include Tochigi’s Yuta Tabuse and Ryan Rossiter and San-en’s Tatsuya Suzuki, to name a few in B1. In the second division, Kumamoto’s Takumi Furuno (6.6), Aomori big man Joseph Burton (5.3), Kanazawa’s Masato Tsukino (5.2), Sendai’s Kaito Ishikawa (5.0) and Fukuoka’s Yasuhiro Yamashita (4.8) are the top five. (Asked who he thinks are in the conversation for best pure passers in B2 among the Japanese and import players, Earthfriends Tokyo Z forward Ruben Boykin Jr. mentioned Ishikawa and Shinshu’s Anthony McHenry.)
Before taking over as Lakestars head coach for the 2017-18 campaign, Shawn Dennis helped concoct defensive strategies for the title-winning Brex last season. He notices a resurgence of quality assist makers currently at work in Japan.
“The main thing I see is the ability to take advantage of situations and then keep that advantage,” Dennis told The Japan Times. “Most of the players you mentioned (see above) do it mostly out of the pick-and-roll situation whereas J.R. does it through the low post. Obviously the respective coaches put their players in the best situation to take advantage of each individual’s skill set. Also I feel the coaches are getting better at teaching spacing and movement off the ball, which is helping these players.
“In J.R.’s case he has such an advantage as a changed nationality guy and Mikawa do a great job of putting players in the right positions off the ball so if you double team him or overhelp he can take advantage of this. Also with J.R. he is deceptively strong and has great hands and ball control.”
Does ex-NBA guard Tabuse, who’s averaging 5.8 points and 2.5 assists, fly under the radar at this stage of his career without splashy statistics?
“In regards to Tabuse he just does what is needed to win,” Denis observed. “He plays generally less minutes, but if you watch him he constantly comes up with big plays at the right time. Ryan tends to do quite a lot of the playmaking but you can guarantee that Tabuse will make the right play the majority of the time. He is a winner and understands this. A great leader. This is what separates him from the other Japanese guards at this stage. The game control understanding and what play needs to run at the right time and what needs to be done to lead his team. Tabuse is the best at this.”
Tasked with working to elevate the 28-year-old Namizato’s game and give him pointers to help him become more consistent, Dennis recognizes there’s a juggling act that he and his opposing coaches endure. The central question is this: How much of the floor leader’s role should be handled by Japanese?
“It is hard for guards in this league as generally the imports are asked to carry a lot of the responsibility for their teams,” Dennis said. “The more responsibility we give to the Japanese guards, the more they will develop in time. This is something I have been trying to do with Namizato. He is evolving into a good guard, but to be great he must keep being a student of the game and learn to understand the different game situations. He is showing a very good willingness to do this and I am enjoying the challenge of coaching him.”
Across the league, Dennis said coaches take different approaches to how they decide who will run the show on offense.
“I think a lot depends on the coaches of respective teams and how they want to spread the responsibility. . . . In other countries the reliance on imports has started to decrease and it is often the locals that now carry a lot more responsibility,” he said.
“We will always use imports because they can help us be better, but we need more locals to develop. This is hard as a coach because you are expected to win or you feel like you will lose your job, so it is sometimes easier to just rely heavily on the imports, which then stymies the development of your locals.”
Dennis has been impressed with Namizato’s overall play. The former Ryukyu and Osaka standout’s numbers include 179 assists and 66 turnovers and a 7.2 points-per-game average.
“Namizato has a very unique blend of individual skill and athleticism,” the Australian coach said. “He is learning how to really put himself in the best position to involve others and when to make the pass. He is also learning how to score more consistently, which will actually help his passing.”
Dennis went on: “His speed is as good as any player in the league and for me it has been trying to put him in positions that allow him to utilize this. He now just needs to continue to work on his craft and develop a consistent scoring ability that will open even more passing opportunities. I think in the coming months you will see more double-figure assist nights.”
The New Year holiday weekend features a lighter slate of games than usual. Instead, they are spread out over a few more days.
On Friday, it’s Osaka vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Yokohama, Hokkaido vs. San-en, Niigata vs. Tochigi and Nishinomiya vs. Toyama in series openers. A day later, it’s Shibuya vs. Kawasaki and Nagoya vs. Mikawa. On Sunday, Tokyo faces Chiba to kick off a series bridging both years. On New Year’s Day, Ryukyu is set to meet Shimane in their first game of 2018.
A talk with Burrell
Nobody can accuse Diamond Dolphins forward Justin Burrell of being a passive competitor. He plays to win and is an accomplished star in Japan pro hoops since his arrival to play for the Yokohama B-Corsairs in 2011.
After the team’s second loss in as many days by single digits to the Jets on Sunday, Burrell commented on where he believes the team is at 26 games into the 60-game campaign.
Burrell said Nagoya (10-16) has been hampered at times by inconsistent play. Looking back on the weekend losses, he cited missing defensive assignments, not winning enough 50-50 loose balls and his team’s lack of confidence to take big shots as key factors.
“Last year, we were a team that actually made those plays before some injuries set in and kind of knocked us off our path to success,” Burrell said. “Yes, if we were to continue to make those plays this season, we’d be, in my opinion, in a race for a championship.”
Did the two defeats to Chiba give the team a needed wake-up call?
Are the Diamond Dolphins at the crossroads with a chance to salvage the season and earn a playoff spot?
“For me, personally, in professional sports I don’t believe there’s a silver lining in a loss,” said Burrell, a St. John’s University alum. “You win or you lose, that’s it. You go to your boss and say give me another chance before you fire me because we lost, but I feel like we can make it. It just doesn’t go that way . . .
“With that said, we are going to improve and we are going to be better and we are going to learn and we’re going to do what it takes in order to be successful at some point or another.”
Insights from Edwards
With a change of scenery, leaving the SeaHorses and joining the Jets in the offseason, Chiba power forward Gavin Edwards is enjoying a productive season for his new team.
He is averaging 17.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 blocks in 26 games (all starts), and the Jets are 19-7, trailing the East Division-leading Alvark by one game.
The 206-cm Edwards is a tall target in the post and often faces physical contact from foes. He admitted as much while holding his young daughter in his arms after a Christmas Day matinee game at Funabashi Arena.
“I think that that’s kind of my role on the team is to kind of be a force inside,” he said, “and I think that really takes getting hit a lot and just kind of being involved with tough plays and stuff. It just kind of comes with the territory. That’s just how it goes for me.”
Edwards matched his season high with 28 points and eight rebounds on Sunday. He was 12 of 16 from the field. He took 10 free throws, his sixth game this season with 10 or more.
The upcoming two-game clash against the Alvark is a key test of the Jets’ mettle.
“They are definitely going to be tough games. . . . They are in first place in our conference, where we’d like to be,” Edwards said. “So we’d like to get both of those wins to give ourselves a chance to take the lead going into the Emperor’s Cup.”
With 18 points and nine boards on Saturday, Edwards produced impressive back-to-back games over the weekend. But he admitted, however, that “I think it’s definitely always good to kind of fly under the radar so people don’t take you as seriously.
“But I do believe that I’m one of the best big men, frontcourt players that’s in the league. And I try to prove that every night, but other people can form their own opinion.”
For Nara’s Friday and Saturday home games against Shinshu, the team is selling single-game tickets for ¥500 apiece for elementary, junior high, high school and university students.
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