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Friday, Jan. 1, 2010


Making Takeno starter keyed Niigata's charge

Staff writer

Niigata Albirex BB point guard Makoto Hasegawa, the league's second-oldest player, began the season in the starting lineup.

It was a bad decision from the get-go.

The Albirex went 2-8 to begin the season, including nine of those games with Hasegawa as a starter.

The team then made a necessary change, promoting promising youngster Akitomo Takeno to starter. And the Albirex rattled off seven straight wins and ended the year in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 9-9 record.

This writer advocated the move weeks ago in a column — before the team officially made the switch, to be precise.

Others share the same sentiment.

As one Western Conference coach bluntly stated, "I respect Hasegawa, but he can't play effectively at this level anymore. Sitting him down was the best thing they could have done. (It's) time to find a way to get him to retire gracefully and move onto the next stage of his career as a coach or something along that line."

This much is clear: Hasegawa, who turns 39 in April, impeded the team's motion offense and defensive rotations due to his declining skills.

Niigata recognized this, too, limiting Hasegawa to four minutes over the past month in two games.

By taking Hasegawa out of lineup, two things have happened simultaneously: 1) Takeno's confidence has rapidly increased. 2) His productivity has flourished.

Takeno has averaged 13.6 points and 6.0 assists per game over the past eight games.

"The biggest difference between them then and now is that Takeno is starting," the coach said. "And they've simplified everything they do.

"Takeno is so quick that he starts a lot of their offense by penetrating, and then they do a great job of swinging the ball to the open man. They start four players who can really shoot the open 3: Takeno, (Antonio) Burks, (Tyrone) Levett and (Yuichi) Ikeda, so that is really hard to defend."

Collectively, the quartet has made 121 3-pointers through last weekend (with Burks knocking down 47 3s to date) and looks to continue that trend against the host Toyama Grouses (8-10) this weekend. The series tips off on Saturday.

Also on the docket for the extended holiday weekend: Ryukyu Golden Kings (16-4) vs. Saitama Broncos (8-10), starting on Saturday; and Rizing Fukuoka (15-9) vs. Sendai 89ers (12-8), starting on Monday.

Quick, strong and capable of playing both forward positions, the 195-cm, 103-kg Burks, who starred at Stephen F. Austin (Texas) during his college days, is a thorn in the side of opposing players. He's averaging 15.3 ppg, third on the team behind Levett's 15.9 and Butorac's 17.7.

"Burks has been really steady for them," the coach said of the player who previously suited up for the Vermont Frost Heaves, the U.S. minor league club owned by renowned Sports Illustrated basketball writer Alexander Wolff. "He is a hard matchup because he usually gets a bigger defender who really doesn't want to go all the way out to the 3-point line to defend."

He added: "Levett is actually a tougher matchup because of his strength and speed, but he is also streaky, so you know he's going to have some bad games from time to time.

"So with your best defender on Levett, your big man on Butorac, Burks often has an advantageous matchup."

In years past, the Energizer Bunny might have been seen as sharing similar characteristics as Butorac. Others see him sharing traits with a hard-working Denver Nuggets forward.

"Butorac never stops moving, never stops running and attacking," the coach observed. "He's a) Chris Anderson clone. With Takeno and Levett driving, and the threat of Burks and Ikeda shooting the 3, whoever guards Butorac starts to help and before you know it, Butorac slips open for a dunk or an offensive rebound.

"He is definitely one of the hardest workers in the league."

League accolades: Butorac has been named the league's MVP for December, when he averaged 20.2 points and 12.3 rebounds a game.

Kyoto Hannaryz forward Josh Bostic is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week. He had 28 points, 20 rebounds and two steals in Saturday's 85-74 win over the Oita HeatDevils. A day later, he finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, five assist and three steals in an 89-87 loss.

The 22-year-old Bostic is the league's fifth-leading scorer (21.9 ppg).

Around the league: HeatDevils guard Yukinori Suzuki, coming off back-to-back 11-point games, has made a positive impression on first-year coach Brian Rowsom.

"Yuki has been healthier this year than he was last year, so that has helped his game individually and as a team," Rowsom said after last Sunday's two-point win over Kyoto.

"He has provided consistent outside shooting that we needed a lot. He hit a big shot against Fukuoka to send the game into OT (on Dec. 19) and this weekend he played well also. He is a veteran who plays very smart and we need that for our young team."

Due to a shoulder injury, Rizing guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura won't play in the All-Star Game on Jan. 31. His replacement will be Lakestars guard Takamichi Fujiwara.

Kawazura is expected to be sidelined for up to three months.

The Rizing will miss his steady leadership and all-around solid play. He's averaging 7.6 ppg with 107 assists and 26 turnovers in 24 games. He also has 100 rebounds and 43 steals to his credit.

Did you know?: Golden Kings forward Bryan Simpson is No. 1 in the league in field-goal shooting (60.6 percent).

According to league stats, 28 of Simpson's 83 baskets are slam dunks. He is a strong, explosive finisher and crashes the boards after missed shot for putback attempts. In short, he gives Dai Oketani's club instant energy off the bench. Simpson has had less success at the free-throw line. He's 31-for-79 (39.2 percent).

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