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Sunday, March 21, 2010

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Aggressive player: Shiga's Masashi Joho (31), driving to the basket against the Kyoto Hannaryz on Oct. 3 in Kyoto, is one of the top Japanese scorers in the bj-league. PHILBERT ONO PHOTO

HOOP SCOOP

Joho's passion gives Lakestars a real boost


His familiar face has been a part of some of the bj-league's brightest moments.

Ed Odeven

He appeared in four bj-league title games and won a pair of championships with the Osaka Evessa.

As a member of the Tokyo Apache, he helped the team reach the final in each of the past two seasons.

Now, in the league's fifth season, Masashi Joho is an integral part of the Shiga Lakestars, who are making a push for their first playoff appearance as a second-year club under the steady leadership of coach Bob Pierce.

The shooting guard has elevated his game to the next level this season, becoming a go-to player. He's averaging a career-high 15.0 points per game (through March 14), can score in bunches, but has grown as a player to the point where he doesn't think he's the team's only option.

"Now I'm really confident that I can play in this league," said Joho, who hails from Sapporo.

You always see him moving, with or without the ball, and when he bring his A-game, he's one of the most electrifying basketball players around.

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Focus on winning: Shiga Lakestars shooting guard Masashi Joho has played a pivotal role in the team's success this season. The Lakestars were 21-19 before the start of their weekend series against the Rizing Fukuoka. PHILBERT ONO PHOTO

Joho has a fiery, competitive side, but his performances also provide wholesome entertainment.

Yes, it's work.

But Joho makes it look fun, and that makes it fun for his teammates and the fans.

At times, his play has been erratic or scorching hot in terms of energy spent and the decisions he's made with the ball — 78 assists, 92 turnovers. But he has taken better care of the ball in recent weeks, though, with three or fewer turnovers in each of the last 12 games.

Yet when Joho recognizes he has the opportunity to be the featured scorer and he's scoring effectively, his team becomes more difficult to compete against.

(The Lakestars are 5-2 when Joho scores 20 or more points).

Shiga entered the weekend with a 21-19 record and Joho is a major part of the team's success story this season.

"At Shiga, Coach Pierce has done a good job of saying, 'Look, I want you to be a scorer,' and Joho's taken that (challenge)," Oita HeatDevils guard Matt Lottich said in a recent interview. "He shoots shots that when I played with him (2005-07) he wouldn't have shot.

"He's much more aggressive (now) and he definitely has the ability, so you can combine confidence with aggressiveness and ability and you are going to have a good player."

* * * * *

Joho averaged 8.4 ppg in his first season with Osaka and 6.7 in 2006-07 when the Kensaku Tennichi-coached club repeated as champions.

In his first season with the Apache, he had his share of ups and downs while adjusting to then-coach Joe Bryant's free-flowing offense. But last season he improved his output to 10.0 ppg to go along with a career-high 71 steals.

Bryant always spoke passionately about the need to "let Joho be Joho," recognizing that the guard often thrives in the open court and makes things happen on defense when he takes gambles, too, and goes for the steal.

The fleet-footed guard is now entering his prime. He turns 28 next month and understands the need to be a leader at this stage of his career.

"I always try to work hard for every game and practice," he said.

And this leads to greater opportunities for success, at the start of games and in the closing minutes of down-to-the-wire contests.

"My role on this team is to score and lead the team by my play," said Joho, who gave Shiga fans a treat in his Lakestars debut — 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals in a win on Oct. 3.

Since Joho was acquired in a trade for Lakestars draft pick Reina Itakura before the season started, Pierce has challenged Joho to become a smarter player. Shot selection is a big part of that.

"The big key for us all year has been getting Joho to recognize the difference between good shots and bad shots," Pierce said. "For example, shooting a 3-point shot on the fast break when we have a big guy underneath for the rebound is a good shot. Shooting it one-on-three with no one under the basket is a bad shot. Earlier in the year his defense would be almost non-existent if he wasn't scoring, or he would get caught up in a personal battle if his man was scoring on him.

"But now he has been showing much more maturity."

The coach illustrated this point by talking about Joho's zero-point outing on Feb. 14 against Oita, a game in which he was 0-for-7 from the field.

Joho bounced back with 17 points, five assists and two steals in Shiga's next game, and has scored 14, 25, 17, 18 and 13 points in succession over the past five games as the Lakestars solidify their playoff aspirations.

Joho has also learned he doesn't always need to be in a hurry during a game.

"Scorers must have supreme confidence, always believing that the next shot will go in, but they also need to learn patience, waiting for the right time to strike," Pierce said.

"Patience has never been one of Joho's strong points, but he showed a lot against Saitama (on Feb. 27-28). He only had four points at halftime on Saturday, but finished with 17, the leading scorer for our team. On Sunday, he had zero points at halftime, sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble, but bounced back and had 14 points in the second half."

Shiga power forward Gary Hamilton, the league's top rebounder, recognizes the impact Joho can have on a game, noting that his play can be the difference between a win or a loss.

"When he's on, you can't get comfortable," said Hamilton, describing the viewpoint of Shiga foes. "He's definitely a sparkplug for our team."

Joho is Shiga's second-leading scorer. Newcomer Mikey Marshall, who has played four games, is statistically atop the charts with 17.3 ppg, followed by Hamilton's 13.9, Ray Schaefer's 13.8 and Chris Schlatter's 10.3.

"We usually have fairly balanced scoring, and having five players in double figures isn't uncommon, so there's really no focus on who is the leading scorer," Pierce noted. "But I'm very proud that Joho is having his best year in terms of scoring. In four years of coaching in the JBL and now in my second year in the bj-league, I've always thought that having a Japanese player who could average at least double figures was one of the keys to being a top team. And this is the first year that I've had one."

There are many ways to score points, and Joho is one of the most stylish, creative marksman in the bj-league. His improvisational skills are a sight to behold, as are his repertoire of shots that register at the upper echelon on any chart that measures difficulty.

Certain players have a flare for the game. Their shots, passes, rebounds, blocks, steals, and even the way they move without the ball earn style points with fans. Joho possesses a showman's feel for the game — alley-oop passes, tough-angle bank shots, for instance — but he's at his best when he doesn't try to force the issue.

Or as he put it: "So far this season, when I tried to score or play (by) myself, I didn't play well, so I should think about timing. I will do what the coach and the team expect. That's it."

And that's an attitude that underscores his mental development as a player.

"I like the fact that Joho wants to score and is very aggressive," said Pierce, who has worked as a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "He spends time working on shots that most players don't have, like the floater down the middle, or running hooks off the glass with either the right or left hand. When he makes those shots in a game it's not an accident, but the result of hours of working on those difficult shots."

* * * * *

Takamatsu Five Arrows guard Yu Okada is the league's leading Japanese scorer (18.5) and Tokyo Apache standout Cohey Aoki is a go-to scorer (15.9). Neither play is their respective team's No. 1 scorer, though.

Joho, on the other hand, has been on pace to be his team's leading scorer at the season's end. If that happens, he would be the first Japanese to accomplish the feat in the league's five-year history.

Joho entered the season as a career 33.3 percent shooter from 3-point range and 38.7 on shots from inside the arc. While his 3-point shooting has dipped to 30.2 percent, this is the first season he's been challenged to be a major scorer rather than a complementary scorer.

His 2-point shooting percentage has improved to 42.2 through March 14. And his free-throw shooting is at 74.6 percent (slightly better than his career percentage of 73.7).

"Joho is third on our team in assists, and as he learns to pass the ball to the open man, take good shots when the time is right, his teammates are learning to trust him more and more," Pierce said. "In fact, learning to be more of team player, and to be be more patient, hasn't hurt his scoring, as evidenced by his season-high 25 points (on March 6) against Tokyo."

We've witnessed brilliant games by Joho in seasons past. In this campaign, however, he's clearly become one of the league's bona-fide impact players.

Without a doubt, Pierce feels blessed to have the opportunity to coach Joho and help him harness his special talents.

"One of the things I really like about the bj-league is that with three import players on the court, the Japanese players who play have to really bring their best every time out," Pierce said. "If you don't make strong plays, you will get the ball stolen or shots blocked. But it creates a situation that can bring out the best in players with strong personalities and the desire to get better, players like Joho, Cohey Aoki, (Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Shigeyuki) Kinjo, Yu Okada, etc.

"So I think you are going to see more and more Japanese players raise the level of their game in the seasons to come."

In only a few months playing with Joho, Lakestars center Ray Schaefer has seen his teammate's shooting skills on display game after game. And without hesitation the big fellow praised Joho's scoring touch, but chose to focus on his play-making skills during our courtside interview on March 6 in Yokohama.

"He has that NBA-level passing game — to visualize what a guy's going to do (beforehand) . . . to jump and stop and get him the ball. He'll get you with the alley-oop," Schaefer said with a smile. "He has that in his game."

Foreign players, too, have learned to appreciate Joho's entertaining brand of basketball. And many of them have come to understand the need for present and future Japanese players to assert themselves as quality scorers.

"This is a very foreign player-dominated league," Lottich concluded. "And to have success like Joho is having right now is great. Hopefully he'll get more fans coming to the games."



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