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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HOOP SCOOP

Newton heads class in inaugural Top 20 list


The bj-league hit the nail on the head by naming Ryukyu Golden Kings center Jeff Newton the MVP of the 2008-09 regular season and the playoffs.

Ed Odeven

Nobody else deserved to win either award.

Nobody else made a greater impact for their team.

Now Newton, winner of four championship titles in his four sterling seasons in the league, can rightfully claim the title of the league's No. 1 player. He proved his value to the Osaka Evessa during the team's three-peat and brought a winning attitude and a superstar's work ethic to Okinawa, providing the biggest lift for a team on and off the court.

Remember this: Newton scored 50 points in the Western Conference final to carry his team into the championship game. Like Michael Jordan had done throughout his career, Newton did so by changing the course of a game in crunch time (he scored a pulse-rising 20 points in the final quarter against the Evessa).

In other words, Newton is the king of Japan's courts.

His former coach, Osaka's Kensaku Tennichi, called the 205-cm Newton a smart, powerful forward that can "lead the team on defense."

"He has scoring ability as well," Tennichi added.

As the bj-league continues to grow, from six teams in 2005-06 to 13 for the upcoming seasons, a yearly Best Five Team doesn't adequately provide an analytical look at the league's top players. It provides an incomplete view of the entire picture; it's like taking a few bites of a five-course meal and then stepping away from the table without returning.

And so what follows is The Japan Times' first-ever Top 20 player rating index. Here's hoping a healthy debate on the list will develop this offseason and in the future.

Throughout the course of the 52-game regular season and the playoffs, observations from league officials, players, coaches and media members were collected to make this project as complete as possible.

1) Jeff Newton — The league's No. 10 scorer (17.9 points per game), No. 3 rebounder (13.1) and co-top dunker (1.4 per game).

Bottom line: Newton, 28, is a proven winner. He plays with pain. He plays hard. He plays consistently. And he is entering his prime.

"Jeff is the reason why we had a great start to this season," Golden Kings GM Tatsuro Kimura said. "I expected he could totally change our team, but I didn't think his impact would be this big.

Jeff's presence at the defensive end is huge with blocked shots, rebounds and help-side rotations. His numbers don't tell you everything.

"He is an all-around player with his shooting range, quickness, passing skills and high basketball IQ. Jeff is a great team player who can communicate with his teammates and coaching staff very well without exchanging many words."

Shiga Lakestars coach Bob Pierce offered a different perspective on the player he ranked No. 1 in the league.

"Jeff is obviously glad to be out of Lynn Washington's huge shadow. His athleticism, rebounding and improved shooting are the reason Okinawa has the best record in the league," Pierce said.

2) Lynn Washington — The league's No. 2 scorer (25.9 ppg), No. 4 rebounder (12.9) and most determined leader. He scored 41 points in Osaka's regular-season finale, a true reminder of his greatness and inspiration to his teammates with the playoffs just around the corner and a pursuit of a fourth title on their minds.

Bottom line: Osaka's two-time league MVP carried the team to the playoff semifinals this season. But without a true big man in the Evessa lineup, Washington couldn't shoulder the entire load by himself.

"His mental toughness is stronger than anybody in the league," Kimura observed.

3) John "Helicopter" Humphrey — The league's No. 8 scorer (19.6 ppg). He collected a pair of scoring titles in the league's first two seasons. In the past two seasons, the Tokyo Apache have advanced to the bj-league finals as Humphrey accepted a more subdued role in the team's offense. When he's in a zone, though, he can connect on five or more 3-pointers, bury several mid-range jumpers and swish 10 or more free throws, with a few dunks throw in for good measure in a 40-point game.

Bottom line: Apache coach Joe Bryant has helped Humphrey refine his passing skills and encouraged his growth as a team leader. Humphrey played a splendid game against Hamamatsu in the Eastern Conference final, but he has had quiet outings in the finals in each of the past two seasons. Somehow he needs to find a way to force the issue on offense — to be The Man when it counts most.

"At times he is an unstoppable force on offense," Pierce said.

4) Nick Davis — The league's No. 8 rebounder (11.4 rpg) possesses strong court vision and solid fundamentals on both ends of the floor. He's a relentless rebounder in the paint and is comfortable setting up shop at the top of the key and it seems he never stops setting picks for his teammates. What's more, he was tied for No. 2 on the Tokyo Apache with 134 assists.

A savvy veteran center with three appearances in the bj-league title game, Davis' unselfish play has been one of his trademarks. And though he has not been part of a championship team, it shouldn't diminish his deserved spot as one of the league's top centers.

Bottom line: Davis has been a major part of the Apache and Niigata Albirex BB's success over the past four seasons. Neither team has been to the finals without him.

Fellow forward Gordon James, who has played against Davis on numerous occasions over the past three seasons, described him as a special player.

"He's light but "he can bang with the best of any big men," James said.

5) Reggie Warren — A 20-point, 10-rebound man, the veteran power forward was the top all-around producer for the Saitama Broncos the past two seasons after two strong years with the Takamatsu Five Arrows. A fine passer, Warren is a force around the basket, with power dunks and a plethora of putbacks.

On defense, Warren leaves no room for comfort for his foes.

"I thought he was a selfish player but I was wrong," Kimura said. "He has shown he is a great team player with his rebounding and passing. I didn't know he could sacrifice himself like he (has done)."

6) Bobby St. Preux — A pure scorer and 2008-09 All-Star Game MVP, he's Sendai's top scoring option. He averaged 21.6 ppg and knocked down 143 3s.

Bottom line: Few players move as well without the ball as St. Preux. He owns one of the smoothest shooting strokes in the game. And he's remarkably consistent, getting double digits in points in 47 of his 48 games.

Pierce called him an "unbelievable shooter and great athlete. (He's) a joy to watch when he's playing well."

Tennichi noted that St. Preux is an excellent penetrator on offense.

7) Shigeyuki Kinjo — The Golden Kings' top perimeter scorer, Kinjo was chosen as the league's Most Improved Player.

It was a well-earned honor. His 687 points (13.2 ppg) were tops among the league's Japanese players. He grew into a confident scorer and a fearless performer with the ball in his hands. And as he proved in the final against Tokyo, Kinjo is an above-average defender.

Bottom line: Kinjo has the skills to become a great player in the years to come.

"(He's) the best scorer among the Japanese players in the league," Kimura said. "His penetration is so sharp (and difficult) to stop. He doesn't hesitate to shoot under the basket with big men trying to block his shots. He is the fastest player in the league, and takes it all the way to the basket even right after the opposing team scores. With high 3-point shooting percentage, he is hard to stop."

8) Gordon James — It was an injury-plagued season for the two-time rebounding champion. He averaged 17.5 ppg and was No. 2 in rebounding (13.4) for the Five Arrows, coming over from the Saitama Broncos after two solid seasons.

James, a native of Guyana, missed 22 games for the Five Arrows with a knee injury but returned to the playoffs and had 18 points and 11 boards in his bj-league playoff debut on May 2 against Osaka.

A day later, he had a 19-point, 12-rebound effort in Game 2, but the Evessa knocked off the Five Arrows in the decisive mini-game to move on to the Western Conference finals.

"Gordon is relentless on the boards at both ends," Pierce said.

In his own words, James described his play this way: "I feel like I'm special because I'm undersized and can play bigger than any big man in the league, and I'm one of the few exciting players in the league."

Bottom line: Consistent production and an old-school work ethic give us the best description of James' impact for his team.

9) Naoto Takushi — The Ryukyu Golden Kings' No. 1 pick in 2007, Takushi has quickly developed into one of the league's best all-around players.

Case in point: He came close to a quadruple-double on Nov. 8 against the Five Arrows (eight points, eight rebounds, nine assists and 10 steals).

Bottom line: The Golden Kings won 41 regular-season games with Takushi running the show at the point. He did an awful lot of things right. But . . .

He finished with 230 assists and a relatively high 133 turnovers.

"His weakness is turnovers," Kimura said. "It means he has room to improve his game to be the best point guard.

"Takushi has an ability to score 30 points in a game if he wants, but he is a team player who can pass the ball to his teammates better than anybody in the league. Jeff (Newton) once said, 'I have no idea how he finds me in the game.' "

Pierce said, "When he learns to cut down on turnovers and reckless play, he'll be the equal of any national team guards."

10) Cohey Aoki — One of the smallest players in the league, the 165-cm Aoki has picked up three free-throw shooting titles in four seasons, including 91.4 percent in 2008-09 (159-for-174) and been a dependable scorer either as a starter or sixth man for the Tokyo Apache.

And as times goes on, Aoki has developed a knack for knocking down game-changing shots when his team needs a spark.

Bottom line: Tokyo's success in the past two seasons is directly linked to Aoki's ability and willingness to play whatever role is asked of him.

"He is the big little boy," Kimura said. "He is able to make big clutch plays to lead his team to victories. He can ice the game with free throws. With him on the floor, Tokyo is very tough to beat from behind late in the game.

"He is like a closer in Major League Baseball, and when the game clock is winding down, he is the last guy the opposing team would like to see on the floor."

11) Michael Parker — The Rizing Fukuoka's All-Star forward led the league in scoring (26.8 ppg) and steals (2.6 spg), was fourth in blocked shots (2.1 bpg) and sixth in rebounds (12.6 rpg). Without Parker, it's safe to assume the Rizing would have won fewer than 15 games; he had an incredible impact on every facet of his team's play.

Bottom line: Parker is a sensational athlete. He has a strong basketball IQ and always finds himself around the ball.

Every team could use a player like Parker.

12) Rasheed Sparks — A two-time All-Star Slam Dunk Contest champion, Sparks is a great leaper, a strong defender, a gifted passer and a more-than-adequate scorer. Sparks has been a top-notch play-maker for the Five Arrows for three straight seasons, helping the team reach the playoffs in all of them.

Bottom line: The more minutes he plays, the more opportunities he has to control the flow of the game.

Sparks filled up dozens of highlight reels during his three seasons in Japan — on the fast break, picking up steals, dunking with incredible force and flashing a natural joker's smile. It's no secret he's a fan favorite in Shikoku.

13) Anthony McHenry — Athletic enough to start at both backcourt positions and both forward spots, the former Georgia Tech player, was a great offseason pickup for the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

McHenry averaged 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. He was sixth in the league in assists (4.7) and 10th in blocks (1.7).

Bottom line: McHenry gave the Golden Kings a big boost from Day One and earned a championship ring the old-fashioned way — blood, sweat and tears.

14) Yu Okada — A sharpshooter with NBA range on 3-point shots, Okada reminds one of perimeter marksmen of yore. His style of play was well suited for the mid-1980s (think: Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets).

Consider: Okada made seven or more 3s in four games this season, including a ridiculous 9-for-13 outing on April 5. He finished with 134 3-pointers.

He's a steady scorer (12.5 ppg) and an improved passer (3.9 apg, No. 9 in the league), which forces teams to respect his skills as a two-way threat on the offensive end.

Bottom line: Okada is an emerging star with the capability to match any player in Japan as a 3-point shooting threat. (It would be thrilling to see him compete against the JBL's best shooters in a 3-point contest.)

Okada can turn himself into a more dangerous player by attacking the basket with greater frequency. He attempted a relatively low 58 free throws this season.

"He's a shooter with great confidence whose ability to score in bunches makes him one of the top players in the league," Pierce said, noting his improved passing has been an added benefit for Takamatsu.

"He can shoot from anywhere on the floor," Kimura said earlier this season.

15) Nile Murry — Osaka's do-it-all point guard was the league's No. 7 scorer (20.0 ppg), No. 2 passer (5.4 apg) and No. 3 theft artist (2.1 spg).

He made 50.3 percent of his 2-point shots and started all 52 games. Durable, dependable and dynamic, Murry kept his team in the hunt for a fourth title this season despite the offseason loss of Newton, Mikey Marshall and Matt Lottich.

Bottom line: Murry is a terrific point guard.

Tennichi described him as a speedy point guard. "(He's) an offensive guard with a high ability for 3-point shooting and penetration, and he's active on the defensive end."

16) Chris Holm — The Sendai center led the league in rebounds (15.6 rpg), including 280 offensive boards, giving the 89ers dozens of second- and third-scoring opportunities after a missed shot. He also scored a respectable 15.0 ppg.

Bottom line: Holm anchored the middle for a quality Sendai team. And he forces teams to pay attention to every ball that doesn't drop through the net.

17) Akitomo Takeno — The Niigata Albirex BB point guard has a bright future in the bj-league. He turned 23 last November and over the course of the season he solidified his reputation as a hot shooter.

Takeno dropped 112 3-pointers through the hoop this season, putting on a satisfying season-long show in accuracy (his 41.3 percent shooting was No. 1 in the league).

Like Aoki, he was nearly automatic at the free-throw line (126-for-141, or 89.4 percent). He made 20 starts in 52 games and developed an instant offensive rhythm when he entered the game.

Bottom line: The Albirex ought to consider giving Takeno more playing time. Doing so will help the jet-quick guard learn to make better decisions as a passer and reduce his turnovers (he had 164 assists and 114 turnovers).

18) Michael Gardener — The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix point guard carried the team to an Eastern Conference title in its first season in the league. Indeed, it was an impressive feat.

Gardener's scoring (25.5 ppg, No. 3 in the league), passing (6.8 assists, No. 1), steals (2.3 spg, No. 2) conjured up images of a similar NBA player. He is the "Allen Iverson of the league," James said.

Bottom line: He has a tendency to take too many shots when he's struggling. But he's not afraid to keep shooting, as evidenced by his 515 3-point attempts.

At his best, Gardener is a lights-out shooter with an equal hunger to dish the ball off.

19) Ryan Rourke — An Ivy League product, Rourke was the expansion Lakestars' brightest and best player, helping set a standard of excellence for future Shiga standouts will strive to reach.

A 200 cm forward, he scored 17.2 ppg and was a pest on defense, leading the team with 73 steals.

Bottom line: Rourke is one of Shiga's building blocks for the future.

Or as Pierce put it: "Ryan may be one of the most versatile players in the bj-league. From game to game, he does whatever it takes to help his team win: scoring, rebounding, defending. Plus his willingness to step in and take a charge, or an elbow to the face, separate him from many of the other talented players in the league."

20) Sun Ming Ming — The 236-cm Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix center didn't play major minutes in his first bj-league season, but the big fellow made a big impact whenever he stepped onto the hardwood. Teams have to alter their approach to the game — spatially and psychologically when he's on the floor.

As Bryant stated during the playoffs, the key to scoring against Sun is to follow the approach Davis took in the Eastern Conference final, finding a way to go around him (example: take a quick step and shoot a hook shot) rather than through him or over him. The latter approach, he said, will fail more times than not.

Bottom line: Sun needs to improve his stamina and rest his weary knees this summer. It won't be an easy combination of tasks.

To become a dominant force in this league, the big fellow needs to get the ball in the low post and attempt 15-20 shots a game. He was a third, fourth or fifth option this season. He only took 234 shots during the 52-game season. He should have taken 234 dunks.

"His size just impacts the game like few other players at any level," Pierce said. "The team is not nearly the same when he is out of the game. The number of shots missed because they are altered by his size is incredible."

Honorable mention: Sendai 89ers power forward Rodney Webb (at times, he reminds one of a hustling Charles Oakley from the mid-1990s with the Knicks, a player with a relentless attitude and a fierce hunger to win; 19.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg are numbers that sum up his quality contributions, first for the Grouses and then for his second club this season).

• Five Arrows center George Leach (sidelined since January with a leg injury)

• Evessa forward Ryan Blackwell (who made a great impact after joining the squad in February)

• Five Arrows guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa (another midseason pickup, he flourished as a scorer, pressure defender and passer, helping the team rattle off 10 straight wins after he joined the club)

• Apache forward Dameion Baker (who has a coach-like presence on the court)

• Five Arrows center Babacar Camara (he played excellent ball for the Toyama Grouses before switching to the Five Arrows midway through the season) Tokyo power forward/center Julius Ashby (one of the league's elite big men in terms of athletic skills, he finished with 99 blocks, 67 dunks, 11.6 ppg and a headache-inducing 51.3 percent shooting at the line)

• Lakestars swingman Bobby Nash (16.0 ppg for an expansion team and 117 3-pointers provided plenty of excitement for the fans in Shiga Prefecture) Albirex forward Yuichi Ikeda (averaged 12.8 ppg and made 52 starts)

• Grouses forward Jerod Ward (the well-traveled University of Michigan product averaged 25.0 ppg in 29 games but was a one-dimensional threat; he had 32 assists and was not a force on defense.)



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