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Saturday, April 7, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Takamatsu's Sparks best player, James top defender


Staff writer

Power forward Lynn Washington was instrumental in leading the Osaka Evessa to the bj-league's first championship last April.

He was every bit as important to their success this season, helping the team win 29 of 40 regular-season contests and enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed.

Washington is The Japan Times' All-First Team power forward. His 22.2 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game and a healthy helping of timely blocked shots, assists, steals and screens.

Joining Washington on the All-First Team are Tokyo Apache shooting guard John "Helicopter" Humphrey, Takamatsu Five Arrows point guard Rasheed Sparks, Sendai 89ers forward Mamadou Diouf and Niigata Albirex BB center Nick Davis.

Humphrey led the league in scoring for the second straight year, putting 25.9 ppg on the board this season. He scored 40 points on three occasions, including back-to-back games in December.

Sparks delivered a sensational effort for the Five Arrows this season, leading the expansion team to the playoffs in its first season.

He led the league in assists (4.7 per game) and steals (2.4), scored 11.8 ppg and pulled down 6.65 rpg. Doing all these things well, Sparks eased the pressure on the team's other players to be the go-to guy. He accepted that role as the leader, and wasn't shy about scoring, either (26 games of 10 or more points).

Simply put, no player was more valuable to his team's success than Sparks.

Diouf flourished in the season's second half and ended it with five games of 30 or more points in the last 13. He scored 20.4 ppg and made 12.0 rpg.

He hits 3s consistently as well, finishing No. 2 in the league in long-range shooting (38.3 percent).

Davis is a savvy veteran at both ends of the floor. He scores (18.3 ppg), rebounds (13.8, No. 2 in the league), blocks shots (1.6 per game, No. 3) and makes his teammates better by commanding attention in the middle.

ALL-LEAGUE SECOND TEAM: Forward Andy Ellis of the Oita HeatDevils is a dynamic scorer with great scoring range for a big man.

At 211 cm, Ellis possesses the size to go inside and stick to spins, drop steps and post-up moves. Instead, he has showcased an impressive inside repertoire to match a well-developed perimeter game.

As a spot-up shooter, Ellis hits 3-pointers with regularity (83-for-254). He was second in the league in scoring (25.1 ppg) and pulled down 9.66 rpg.

Osaka Evessa center Jeff Newton does everything well on the court save for hitting free throws (he made 60.4 percent of his shots).

But his 15.2 ppg, 13.3 rpg, a league-best 2.3 blocks and a knack for making steals and passes helped the Evessa finish the regular season as the league's No. 1 team.

Saitama Broncos power forward Gordon James has a classic defense-first, score-second mindset. Think of him as Boston Celtics great Bill Russell's athletic descendant. James averaged a league-best 14.3 rebounds per game and was second in the league in blocks (1.8). He put 17.5 ppg on the board, too.

Osaka's Matt Lottich is a steady point guard with a keen understanding of the game's intricacies. He plays the fast-tempo offense or the slow-it-down sets with equal effectiveness. He scores consistently (15.2 ppg, including 36 in the team's second game of the season) and never fails to gets his teammates involved on offense (108 assists).

SIXTH MAN: Antoni Wyche of the Albirex is a steady playmaker, helping his team run its up-tempo offense. Wyche doesn't put up flashy numbers, but his consistency is a key for Niigata.

Wyche, a guard/forward, second in the league in assists (4.5 per game) and his assist-to-turnover ratio is solid (178 assists to 103 giveaways). He also averaged 6.7 ppg and had 49 steals while making 40 starts.

BEST AMBASSADOR: Center Jerod Ward of the Toyama Grouses was third in the league in scoring (23.7 ppg). A well-rounded defender and terrific dunker, Ward, a former University of Michigan player, became a fan favorite in Toyama from Day One and brought the rowdy Okinawa crowd to its feet during All-Star weekend in late January, especially in the Slam Dunk Contest.

MOST EXCITING PLAYER: If there's one thing you need to know about the bj-league, it is this: Humphrey makes at least one highlight-reel dunk every game.

When he's flying through the air, grab your camera.

Better yet, watch him closely and then go find an old video of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan from their All-Star dunk-fests. The artistry of Humphrey's dunks is spectacular, as is his energy when he's hitting shots left and right.

For two years, Humphrey has thrilled bj-league fans. His explosive game is impressive and requires a concerted effort -- and lots of double teams -- to defend. Players get exhausted guarding him, and still he scores 30 on a regular basis.

BEST BACKUP: Forward David Palmer of the Evessa. He made 19 starts, but played in all 40 games. What he did during those games was make Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi's job easier.

How so?

He scored 17.4 ppg and hit the double-digit mark in all but three of those games, ending the season with 34 straight games of 10 or more points.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: James.

MVP: Sparks.

MOST PROMISING FUTURE: Five Arrows center Julius Ashby. He has the potential to be a great player in the bj-league for the next decade. Or test his skills in Europe and, possibly, as a backup in the NBA down the road.

Defensively, Ashby, 24, has superb instincts and long arms to match. He can alter the course of game on his own. Consider: He swatted five shots (some forwards go an entire year without getting five blocks) in the fourth quarter of the Apache-Five Arrows game on March 24).

THE HOOPS FEDERER AWARD: If there's one thing Roger Federer does as visibly on the tennis court besides dominating, it is this: He makes it look easy in the process -- and, in fact, always seems to keep the same demeanor.

Oita small forward Mikey Marshall, who was schooled in the fundamentals of the game by Bobby Knight, NCAA's all-time winning Division I coach, while attending Texas Tech, has a similar penchant for making the game look easy.

He doesn't score 40 a game or lead the league in any of the headline-grabbing statistics, but he is the driving force for the HeatDevils.

He had two or more steals in 19 games, two or more blocked shots in 10 contests (including a season-high six against the Tokyo Apache on March 17) and 19 double-doubles.

Like Scottie Pippen during the Chicago Bulls' heyday, Marshall is a stellar passer on the wings and runs the fast break as well as any player in the bj-league.



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