Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Niigata re-signs sharpshooter Davante Gardner; NeoPhoenix icon Masahiro Oguchi calls it quits

by Ed Odeven

Davante Gardner is staying put with the Niigata Albirex BB.

While the Central Division club missed the playoffs last season, the Marquette University alumni enhanced his reputation as an elite player in the B. League by leading the circuit in scoring (28.7 points per game).

The 203-cm Gardner finalized a deal to return to Niigata for a third season, the team recently announced.

“I am already ready for the 2018-19 season,” Gardner said in a team-issued statement. (I’m) also preparing to go to the championship.

“Fans, boosters, sponsors, please, please help us this year. Thanking you in advance.”

Gardner, who turns 27 in September, topped the 40-point plateau six times this past season. He pulled down 10.0 rebounds a game while also averaging 2.5 assists.

In other team news, veteran shooting guard Masashi Joho, one of the iconic players of the bj-league era (2005-16), will not have his contract renewed, it was announced on Tuesday.

Joho, 36, spent one season with the Albirex after being the face of the Toyama Grouses from 2011-17. In 52 games (33 starts) for Niigata, the Hokkaido Prefecture native averaged 6.6 points and 1.8 assists.

“It was a short period of one year, but it was a great experience for me,” the former bj-league MVP said.

New chapter, new challenge

Masahiro Oguchi, the vibrant pulse of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s back-to-back championship teams in 2009-10 and 2010-11 under fiery sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura, has been receiving applause and well-wishes from fans, former teammates and others in Japan’s basketball circles in recent weeks.

The reason?

The 42-year-old Oguchi, aka “Mr. Phoenix,” has quietly retired after a 20-year career in pro basketball, all with the same franchise. He joined the OSG Phoenix in 1998, when the team played in the JBL.

With a knack for making clutch steals and clutch jumpers, the ever-hustling Oguchi set the tone for the Phoenix for years. He saw limited action over the past couple seasons, when the club became the San-en NeoPhoneix in the new league. He appeared in just 10 games this past season. Basically, he became a mentor to younger players, serving as a player-coach since 2014.

In a classy gesture to fans, the Osaka Prefecture native posted a photo on Facebook that included a show of gratitude (“Thank you for your support for 20 years. We are Phoenix.”) and his signature.

Ex-teammate Jermaine Green wrote, in part, on the social media site: “Happy retirement, my man. Enjoy your next journey.”

Oguchi, who stands 172 cm, was a lethal 3-point shooter, even into his 40s. He had a smooth-looking shot and a quick release. Once he heated up, he caused fits for foes.

A fan favorite throughout his career, he exuded confidence in his teammates and provided tangible leadership along with the intangibles that help good teams thrive — making the pass that leads to the assists and poking away passes, for example.

In a 2010 interview with The Japan Times, Oguchi admitted he’s not a rah-rah vocal leader.

“I can’t lead the team with my words,” Oguchi said after a playoff game. “But I feel like I was able to guide the guys by showing my attitude for things, like chasing loose balls.”

In a January 2012 Hoop Scoop column, this reporter observed: “Though he’s known for his 3-point shooting prowess and ability to make a steal at the most crucial moments of a game, Hamamatsu guard Masahiro Oguchi also impresses (Saitama Broncos coach Natalie) Nakase, and she considers him a skilled practitioner of this under-appreciated art form.”

The column continued with this keen insight from then-Broncos coach Nakase, who now works as an assistant coach for the NBA G League’s Agua Caliente Clippers: “He’s a very smart and experienced player,” said Nakase, “who is always around the ball. He’s always in the right spots at the right time.”

In one of the shining moments in Oguchi’s career, he buried 10 of 14 3-pointers in a 35-point outburst, a career-high total, in the Eastern Conference final against Niigata for the Phoenix in May 2010, helping them reach the final. He was named the playoff MVP a day later, when Hamamatsu routed Osaka in the title contest at Ariake Colosseum.

In one survey, he listed former NBA greats Ray Allen and Tim Duncan as players he’d like to compete with.

Look for Oguchi, whose enthusiasm for the game is infectious, to continue to make a mark on Japan basketball for decades to come.

He is beginning his post-playing career as the men’s coach at Hamamatsu Gakuin University.

Coaching news

The Yamagata Wyverns have appointed a new head coach, with the well-traveled Ryutaro Onodera taking over as the bench boss in Yamagata, the team announced on Wednesday.

Onodera, 36, spent the past two seasons leading the Shinshu Brave Warriors. Before that, he was the head coach for the Saitama Broncos in the final bj-league season (2015-16) and Bambitious Nara (2014-15). He also guided the IBL’s Nippon Tornadoes in 2013.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Onodera said the focus is clear, with the team aiming to earn promotion to the top flight.

“I would like to create a team with a sense of unity with everyone involved on the team and challenge (to reach B1) with the team as a whole,” he said in a statement.

After a 14-46 season in 2016-17, the Onodera-led Brave Warriors improved to 25-35 this past season.

The NeoPhoenix, meanwhile, announced that Hiroki Fujita will return for a third season at the helm.

Tabuse update

Tochigi Brex point guard Yuta Tabuse, a former Phoenix Suns player, is entering his 11th season with the club.

He finalized a contract with the team for the upcoming campaign team this week. The deal was announced on Thursday.

Kirk re-signs with Alvark

Standout big man Alex Kirk, who scored a game-high 23 points in the B. League title match on May 26, is staying with the Alvark Tokyo as they aim to defend their title next season.

“I would like to win the champion trophy again,” said the University of New Mexico alum.

Tokyo teammates Genki Kojima, Takumi Saito, Yudai Baba, Takeki Shonaka, Zack Baranski, Shohei Kikuchi and Joji Takeuchi have also re-signed. The announcement was made this week.