Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Alvark's Takeki Shonaka playing key role as a backup

by Ed Odeven

When opportunity knocks, Takeki Shonaka is ready to answer the call.

This season, the veteran guard has been thrust into a bigger role due to the Alvark Tokyo’s depleted depth in the backcourt. Rising star Yudai Baba left the squad in the offseason and now plays for the NBA G League’s Texas Legends. Backup point guard Genki Kojima suffered a right knee injury (torn meniscus) and underwent surgery on Oct. 28. Kojima is expected to be sidelined for the rest of the season.

As a result, Shonaka has received additional playing time this season.

In nearly 19 minutes of playing time on Sunday, the 35-year-old didn’t score against the host Yokohama B-Corsairs. But he dished out five assists, matching a season-high total, and made a steal. He provided solid contributions in the Alvark’s 82-69 triumph, their third straight win.

On Saturday, the 180-cm Hyogo Prefecture native finished with five points and four assists in a 78-58 victory at Yokohama International Swimming Pool.

Shonaka is averaging 16 minutes, 3.2 points and 2.0 assists per game this season, appearing in all 21 games (zero starts). The 35-year-old, who has played for the franchise since 2007, scored a season-best 12 points against the Akita Northern Happinets on Oct. 16. He has 41 assists and 21 turnovers.

“Last season, obviously Genki was our backup point guard and he did a tremendous job for us,” Shonaka told The Japan Times on Sunday. “But unfortunately, due to his injury the whole situation has been dramatically changed this season.

“Our strength as a team is if one guy falls, we really pitch in and we try to put whatever effort it is to regain the best portion of him and my position right now is to fill in Genki’s shoes, and I’m really trying to put forth whatever effort there is in order for the team to win.

“Obviously there’s a lot of responsibilities and there’s a lot of things we need to shoulder.”

Alvark head coach Luka Pavicevic echoed Shonaka’s sentiments and offered a few additional insights.

“Generally, (Seiya) Ando and (Daiki) Tanaka are our main creators in the outside line, but now we don’t have Baba and Kojima,” Pavicevic said.

Last season, young playmaker Takumi Saito, who is now starting for the Shiga Lakestars, became a regular part of the Alvark backcourt rotation. Shonaka barely played (103 total minutes), with the Aoyama Gakuin University alum contributing 1.2 points and 0.7 assists in 20 games) as the Alvark captured their second consecutive B. League title.

Now Pavicevic is overseeing Tokyo’s effort to strengthen its backcourt.

“Our guard line and outside line is working really hard — (newcomer/swingman Yutaro) Suda, too — to get integrated (and) Shonaka to get back into a strong role because last year we chose Takumi Saito to build and Shonaka was practically one year without playing,” Pavicevic said. “So it’s not easy for Shonaka.”

Pavicevic added: “Our guard line is under a big hit but I think that one team is as strong as its weakest link. It’s not as strong as its best player . . . and I think we are a strong team because all our players have a high level of personal and player integrity.”

Shonaka sets a high standard for himself. He’s always looking to elevate his game in order to help the team thrive.

“On the court I’ve got a tremendous amount of responsibility, and the base level each game, step by step as a veteran player, I want to pitch in and do my best job in order to make this happen for us, which is easier said than done,” admitted Shonaka, who said he admires present-day NBA point guards Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul.

Remembering his younger days, Shonaka also mentioned that he liked the way Chauncey Billups, a role model for him, played the position, citing his “strong mentality and great leadership.”

Shonaka has a specific goal in mind whenever he steps onto the court.

“A floor leader that leads to winning that leads to a championship, that’s the type of point guard I try to be,” stated Shonaka, who frequently watches NBA games to study how point guards operate.

To help the Alvark have success, Shonaka described his on-court mission in Sunday’s game this way: “I tried to do my best to control the tempo of the game. I tried to do my best to acquire momentum for our team.”

The Alvark (16-5) are hungry to extend their championship reign this spring and know it won’t be easy.

Just ask Shonaka.

“Obviously, we are the two-time championship team,” Shonaka said. “Therefore opponents are really trying to pull us down, strategically as well as individually, aggressiveness, and so I feel that it cannot be the same approach this season. Obviously, there is a lot of pressure against us. Opposing teams are pressuring us as well, so we need to improve. We want to be steady. We want to make an impact to the entire league, especially any team who comes to play against us.”

Coaching change in Okinawa

For the first time in their 13-season franchise history, the Ryukyu Golden Kings have announced a head coaching change while a season is ongoing.

On Monday, the team delivered a news release stating that bench boss Norio Sassa, who was in his third season at the helm, had resigned because of “mental and physical exhaustion.”

Assistant coach Hiroki Fujita, who joined the team in the offseason, takes over as head coach.

Sassa, 35, guided the Golden Kings to a 42-18 record in his first season in charge. They went 40-20 last season and finished atop the West Division standings for the second straight year.

Ryukyu (13-7) is tied with the Osaka Evessa for the best record in the six-team West Division.

“In any game, I am proud that I was able to stand on the court with energy and fighting spirit and to fight with you,” Sassa said in a team-issued statement. “And I am really grateful to the players who fought together.”

Perhaps Sassa’s departure was telegraphed by a series of announcements on Twitter prior to Ryukyu games earlier this month. The team provided updates on Dec. 7, 11 and 14 notifying the public that he would be absent from its games, including a pair of weekend series. It turned out to be five total games.

For the past five games, Fujita has filled in during Sassa’s absence due to “poor physical condition,” according to three team-issued tweets. The Golden Kings have won three straight games.

Like Sassa, who was appointed Ryukyu coach in July 2017, all of the team’s previous coaching hires were made after the regular season concluded. Hernando Planells was hired in 2007 as the Kings’ original sideline supervisor. In 2008, Dai Oketani was handed the coaching reins. In 2012, Koto Toyama stepped into the top spot. In 2013, Tsutomu Isa was named Toyama’s replacement, and guided the Golden Kings to a pair of bj-league titles during his tenure.

Fujita, 33, coached the Gunma Crane Thunders (2013-14) and Fukushima Firebonds (2014-16) in the bj-league. In the B. League era, he led the San-en NeoPhoenix from 2016 to 2019, then accepted a job offer as a Golden Kings assistant in June.

Tuesday rewind

The visiting Kawasaki Brave Thunders defeated the SeaHorses Mikawa 86-76 to complete a series sweep.

Kawasaki improved its league-best record to 18-3.

Nick Fazekas paced the Brave Thunders with 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Mathias Calfani and Yuma Fujii both had 15 points. Ryusei Shinoyama doled out seven assists.

For Mikawa (5-16), Kosuke Kanamaru scored 24 points.

The Brave Thunders never trailed.