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Sunday, March 6, 2011

HOOP SCOOP

Japanese players grow in bj-league, stagnate in JBL


The simplistic, elitist viewpoint that JBL squads would dominate against bj-league foes is a flawed argument because of the differences in the way the two leagues operate. The JBL's one-foreigner quota and the bj-league's three-imports-on-the-court rule present stark contrasts in their styles of play.

Ed Odeven

Until teams from both leagues play each other dozens of times — possibly with a two-foreigner compromise — there can be no true evidence of a team's superiority against an opponent from the other league. It is obvious, though, that the influx of foreigners — and 10 new teams already — in the bj-league since its first game was played in the fall of 2005 has been a great benefit to the sport here.

Individuals who are stuck inside of a time warp can conveniently ignore the reality that the bj-league has had a monumental impact on the sport's growth in Japan.

That's why it's no surprise that the powers-that-be espouse the old, tired message about the establishment league being better than the upstart rival.

Exhibit A: A column in The Daily Yomiuri on Wednesday, which focused on the perceived difficulties of a merger between the leagues and JBL2 clubs, possibly in 2013.

". . .I think the JBL collects Japan's top athletes and top professionals, and tries to assemble strong teams," JBA official Hideaki Usui told the paper.

The column, written by John Gibson, reported that Usui described the bj-league as still being in the "development stage" and "I wonder if teams like those can really compete in the same arena."

Gibson added: "The bj-league, whose Japanese players ostensibly were unable to make it onto JBL rosters, is seen as inferior."

Players from Japan's lesser-known, lower-tier schools dot bj-league's rosters, while JBL clubs have numerous guys from more established collegiate programs like Waseda University and Keio University.

But there is no draft in the JBL, which adds a layer of doubt about the league's "professional standards." Conversely, the bj-league's Japanese players, many of whom were drafted by their current or past clubs, have more upside than the JBL's native sons.

Listen to Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill's explanation:

"There is little doubt that the Japanese players in the bj-league benefit from practicing and playing with five import players. We started training camp back on Sept. 3 in Dallas and we have had over 100 team practices and probably 10 individual practices."

News photo
Tough competition: Tokyo Apache guard Kensuke Tanaka, applying pressure on Oita HeatDevils forward Damian Johnson, has made significant improvement this season in the bj-league. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Hill has coached the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Seattle SuperSonics and San Antonio Spurs, bringing true professionalism to the game here and helping raise the standard of coaching in bj-league.

The same can be said about former Japan national team bench boss and two-time Euroleague title winner Zeljko Pavlicevic, who now leads the expansion Shimane Susanoo Magic.

Under Hill's tutelage, guard Kensuke Tanaka, who played 18 total minutes last season as a rookie, has flourished. He's also started the past nine games (seven Tokyo triumphs) along with fellow Japanese guards Jumpei Nakama and Cohey Aoki.

Hill's confidence in his Japanese players is a testament to their growth and adjustments they've made competing with and against a large number of foreign players in the bj-league, which includes former NBA guards Kenny Satterfield (Saitama) and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Kyoto) and center Robert Swift (Tokyo), as well as nearly 20 NBA Development League veterans this season and players from premier U.S. programs, including Niigata's Willie Veasley, who started for Butler in last spring's NCAA Men's Tournament title game against Duke.

"He has worked extremely hard and has gotten better every day," Hill said of Tanaka. "Along with his improvement he has grown in confidence and has earned our starting point guard position. Last weekend he scored 42 points in two games (vs. the Ryukyu Golden Kings) against in my opinion the best roster in the bj-league. . . . He is a great example of a Japanese player improving by leaps and bounds."

"Jumpei was a part-time starter last season and has started the entire season this year and made the All-Star team for the first time," Hill noted.

Gaudy offensive totals alone won't keep Nakama, who's averaging a career-best 11.7 points, in the lineup. He's expected to play a starring role on defense, too. This has included difficult assignments, including Osaka's Billy Knight (UCLA product), Fukuoka's Nile Murry (Texas Christian) and Miyazaki's Jackie Manuel (North Carolina) — a trio of guys he did a good job on, according to Hill.

"We start three Japanese players and that means they must defend imports on a consistent basis," the coach added. "I think our team is a good example of how the Japanese players improve in a solid environment against American imports."

Hill sees the mind-numbing impasse between the two leagues, orchestrated by the JBA's bureaucratic hacks, as a waste of time and does nothing to help elevate the sport.

"If the JBL and the bj-league were to play each other and stick to each league's rules, the bj-league would dominate the JBL," he predicted. "There is no doubt about that."

He added: "As long as the JBA resists the two leagues coming together, it hurts the development of the Japanese players on the national team and eliminates the development of other players who might be great additions to the national team. . . .

"Bringing the two leagues together and developing the country's talent would benefit a lot of people. So, in conclusion I think Japan is sabotaging itself in the world of basketball. And the bj-league and the way it's set up is benefiting the Japanese players and their development far more than the JBL."

Akita Northern Happinets coach Bob Pierce, whose career includes stints as a Japan national team assistant coach and bench boss for the JBL's Hitachi Sunrockers and bj-league's Shiga Lakestars, shares many of the same views as Hill.

"One of the problems I always see when people discus the two leagues from the JBL and/or JBA perspective is that they totally ignore the import players, as if they don't exist," Pierce said. "They only compare Japanese players to Japanese players. Yes, most of the Japanese players in the JBL are better than most of the Japanese players in the bj-league.

"Of course that argument is beginning to change with Ishizaki now playing in the bj-league," he added, referring to Shimane guard Takumi Ishizaki, the first active bj-league player to suit up for the national team. "But the vast majority of Japanese players that we are talking about are not NBA-level players, nor are they NCAA Division I-level players. Almost all are NCAA Division II, and more realistically, NAIA-level players."

In addition, Pierce said, "Players in the bj-league, from (Shiga All-Star guard Masashi) Joho to Cohey to (Saitama All-Star forward Kazuya) Hatano have shown remarkable improvement during their time in the bj-league. Playing with and against so many foreign players has had a major impact on their improved level of play. That this growth and improvement is ignored by those outside the league is very sad.

"How good could (Link Tochigi Brex standout Takuya) Kawamura — a two-time JBL scoring champ and current scoring leader — or the Takeuchi twins be now if they had played in the bj-league instead of the JBL? Imagine if every weekend Joji and Kosuke (Takeuchi) were matched up with Ryukyu's Jeff Newton, Osaka's Lynn Washington, Sendai's Mike Bell, Hamamatsu's Jeffrey Parmer, Toyama's Brian Harper, Fukuoka's Michael Parker, etc.

"The JBL now has only one player 6-foot-11 (210 cm) or taller, Fumihiko Aono at Panasonic, while the bj-league has 10 or more. Not to mention all the guys 6-10 (208 cm). Most of the JBL imports are 6-7 (200 cm) to 6-9 (206 cm). Talented players, sure, but not at all what you see when you look at the NBA or the top teams in the Euroleague. The bj-league gives players a taste of what to expect if they were to play in a higher league."

Aoki, the only player in bj-league history to play in all five of its All-Star Games, believes the bj-league structure has helped develop many Japanese players' talents.

"Ishizaki came over to here (bj-league), and things have gradually been changing recently," Aoki said. "People perhaps thought that there were gaps between the bj-league and JBL. Ishizaki is a great player, but at the same time it's not that you can't stop him at all. We have many (Japanese) guys that can play the game as well as him in the bj-league. I think that this league has made progress in the last six years."

To guide the sport in the right direction, Pierce and a growing number of progressive thinkers realize the bj-league model is the best approach for Japan.

"Basketball is still a minor sport in Japan, and the only growth in the last six years is the bj-league because of the imports," Pierce said. "So to ignore them and treat them like they don't exist or don't matter is foolish.

"The JBL has the best Japanese players, but is stagnant and hasn't produced any growth at all," he added, noting that 13 JBL teams have folded in the past 15 years, three more JBL teams have defected from the JBL (Niigata, Saitama and OSG, which is now called Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix) and there's a possibility that the JBL's Hokkaido club will fold after this season.

"The bj-league is growing, but lacks the best Japanese players to move beyond its second-rate image."

Brex point guard Yuta Tabuse had a taste of the big time playing four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004, but never played another NBA game. A Japanese star in the NBA would have a major influence on the sport here — for future generations of players and media coverage — but to get to that point, the best working model of the two current circuits is the bj-league's.

"The only way to produce an NBA level player is to have NBA-level players playing in your league at multiple positions," Pierce said. "The first real Japanese NBA player will probably be a guard, so you need to have as many high-level point guards and shooting guards playing in the league, so the Japanese players can test themselves every time they step on the court.

"The JBL has one (import) guard this season," he added, speaking of Aisin's Richard Frahm. "So how do you test yourself every night if you're a guard? But the bj-league has lots of guards. And that's why Joho and Cohey and so many others keep getting better and better."

Pavlicevic, no stranger to success during a distinguished coaching career, expresses optimism that the JBA can create a better future for the sport here and says Japanese players faced greater challenges playing in the bj-league.

"You need very good skills to drive inside and shoot the basketball and get past two, three defenders," he said, citing the hardened defensive skills of guys such as Swift create formidable challenges for Ishizaki and other Japanese players.

* * * * *

Editor's note: Outspoken forward Isaac Sojourner, who starred at Hamamatsu University and later played in both the JBL2 and bj-league, offered an in-depth reaction to JBA official Hideaki Usui's statements. Read this story on The Japan Times' website.



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