Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Veteran forward Jawad Williams, rookie point guard Kai Toews bolster Brex for season's stretch run

by Ed Odeven

The Utsunomiya Brex, who are built to win now, upgraded their roster in recent weeks.

The addition of veteran forward Jawad Williams, who played an integral role for the Alvark Tokyo in their back-to-back B. League championship seasons (2017-18 and 2019-20), and rookie point guard Kai Toews has bolstered the team’s talented rotation.

Utsunomiya has the luxury of not needing Williams or Toews to be primary scorers. Nor are they needed to shoulder the defensive load.

Instead, both can blend into the Brex’s overall game plan, utilizing their talents. Which has been demonstrated in the weeks since Williams and Toews made their Brex debuts on Dec. 28 and Jan. 15, respectively.

This season’s title chase, meanwhile, looks like a thrilling race to the finish line.

Four East Division teams have 25 or more victories through Sunday. The Brex and Alvark have 28-9 records, while the Chiba Jets are 26-11 and the Sunrockers Shibuya are 25-12. The Central Division-leading Kawasaki Brave Thunders are also 28-9. Can another playoff-bound team or contender, including the Ryukyu Golden Kings, Osaka Evessa, Shiga Lakestars, Kyoto Hannaryz and SeaHorses Mikawa, make a magical run?

For the Brex, limiting mistakes is one of their hallmarks. They have the league’s fewest turnovers per game (9.3).

Averaging 81.3 points per game (No. 5 in the 18-team league), coach Ryuzo Anzai’s squad also possesses a potent 3-point shooting attack (9.2 per game, No. 3 in the circuit).

Williams fits into the Brex system as a player who can stretch the defense. Since his debut for the Tochigi Prefecture-based club, the University of North Carolina alum has made 46.9 percent of his 3s (15 of 32).

In 16 Brex games, all coming off the bench, Williams, who turns 37 on Feb. 19, is averaging 7.0 points and 3.1 rebounds. This includes 17- and 16-point performances against the Golden Kings on Jan. 4 and 5.

Toews, who was second among NCAA Division I players in assists last season (7.7 per game, trailing only current Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant) as a freshman, has appeared in nine Brex contests. The 188-cm backcourt catalyst is getting about 11.5 minutes of playing time per game. He’s averaging 6.4 points and 2.3 assists.

This enables him to provide a burst of energy here and there. It also gives the 21-year-old Tokyo native opportunities to study the game up close while observing the team’s successful backcourt players, including Makoto Hiejima, Yusuke Endo and Hironori Watanabe.

Sizing up his experience as a pro just weeks after his 12-point debut against the Sunrockers, Toews acknowledged that he feels right at home with the Brex.

“It’s team basketball,” Toews told reporters on Jan. 26, a day after he had 11 points, four rebounds and five assists in 15-plus minutes against the visiting Evessa.

“It’s definitely a winning team. . . . Everybody has the same ego,” he noted, adding that the Brex, who captured the B. League title in the inaugural 2016-17 campaign, are a “high IQ” basketball club.

Utsunomiya’s team-first identity is visible on defense, according to Toews, who left the University of North Carolina Wilmington in December to pursue a pro career. When a player misses a defensive assignment, “everyone covers,” Toews said.

Noting that the U.S. college game involves a 30-second shot clock, Toews said he’s had to adjust to the B. League’s 24-second shot clock.

Osaka Evessa center Josh Harrellson said he’s impressed with Toews’ skill set.

“He’s aggressive,” Harrellson told Hoop Scoop. “He can play one-on-one from the point guard position. He can get to the rim. He’s a good finisher. He’s a good passer, especially being such a young kid. He definitely can see the floor and he kind of plays like he’s not a rookie. He plays like he’s been around for a while. That’s just confidence and being able to have that confidence at such a young age is pretty good. . . . He’s going to be an exciting player in this league.”

Brex star Ryan Rossiter recognizes that the addition of Williams and Toews gives the club a better shot at winning its second B. League title.

“Jawad is a two-time champion, coming off two championships in the B. League, so he’s a veteran,” Rossiter said. “He played in the NBA, he played at high levels (in Europe), so he knows how to play the game. So that’s obviously a huge help.

“And Kai is young, energetic and his career is just on the up. So I’m excited to see him continue to develop with the Brex.”

Rossiter, for one, is impressed with Toews’ impact already for the team.

“He’s been great. . . . He shows up every night and competes,” Rossiter said.

Williams believes Toews has the potential to play at the highest level, possibly using the B. League as a springboard to a future in the NBA.

“Kai has the potential to be very good,” the former Cleveland Cavalier told Hoop Scoop this week. “He has nice size, playmaking ability and is confident. Given the right situation he can play (at) many different levels. He is a true point guard.”

Because of their mutual connections to college hoops in North Carolina, Williams was already aware of Toews’ talent before they became Brex teammates.

“I’ve seen Kai play over the years because he has played for my former teammate Jackie Manuel and (ex-head coach) C.B. McGrath at UNCW,” noted Williams, who tore his right Achilles tendon last March and returned to action with the B2’s Koshigaya Alphas in November before joining the Brex. “He continues to get better. Playing on a team full of veterans, he is learning more and more every day.”

The latest chapter in Williams’ global basketball odyssey and the first chapter of Toews’ pro career provide an interesting subplot to the Brex’s season.

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