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Saturday, June 16, 2012

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Power and speed: Ryukyu Golden Kings star Jeff Newton (right) is the only player in bj-league history to play for five championship teams. YOSHIAKI MIURA

HOOP SCOOP

Ryukyu's Newton named JT's top player for second time


With non-stop, nonsensical expansion since the first games were staged in the fall of 2005, the bj-league's ranks have swelled to include a growing number of solid players, including an abundance of former NCAA Division I performers.

Ed Odeven

The league, however, has failed to officially identify more than a handful of top-caliber players each year. Its Best Five team is inadequate. Furthermore, failing to include the media in the voting process is simply foolish, it says here.

That said, here's one basketball journalist's annual Top 20 list, recognizing a greater — and better — mix of players than the one produced by those who are allegedly in the business of promoting the sport on a national level.

Throw away the statistics, the box scores and the play-by-play analysis for a moment and start with this stunning fact: Ryukyu Golden Kings big man Jeff Newton has made it to the Final Four in seven consecutive seasons. His Okinawa-based club captured its second title on May 20, and the Indiana University product's leadership and on-court presence was front and center for the Ariake Colosseum audience to witness once again.

The peerless Newton's five championships, including three with the Osaka Evessa, represent the most impressive accomplishment in league history.

His quiet, assertive role for Ryukyu has been a constant since he joined the organization for the 2008-09 campaign and helped shift the balance of power from Osaka to Okinawa.

If the Kings need a big rebound, blocked shot, steal, assist, screen or bucket, chances are Newton will be the man to get it done. In short, he's the glue that holds the team together.

Newton is The Japan Times' Player of the Year for the 2011-12 season. Newton was also the JT player of the year in the 2008-09 season when the Kings won their first title.

Newton collects double-doubles like most of us collect receipts from the local convenience store. He was the league's ninth-leading rebounder at 9.9 per game.

He was healthy, energetic and focused for the entire season following the Kings' disappointing championship runnerup finish in 2010-11. And he kept his teammates in line for 52 games plus the playoffs.

A coach-like presence on the floor, Newton's growing legend is well documented in this publication. His 19 rebounds (17 defensive boards), nine points, three assists and three steals further validated his superior play in the championship game against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.

Here's the rest of the top 20:

2. Justin Burrell (Yokohama B-Corsairs) — The rookie power forward was a breath of fresh air for the bj-league. Polite off the court and a ruthless competitor on the floor, the St. John's product collected the league's MVP accolades and Best Five honor as the expansion club's best player. A truly gifted athlete, Burrell's mesmerizing mix of moves on offense made him perhaps the most difficult player in the league to defend. His 18.7 ppg and 9.9 rebounds in 52 starts represented durability and consistency.

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Giant impact: Yokohama B-Corsairs power forward Justin Burrell, the league MVP, started all 52 games for the first-year franchise during the regular season and was the team's top scorer and rebounder. DOMINIKA FITZGERALD

3. Jermaine Dixon (Hamamatsu) — The strong, alert point guard guided the Phoenix to the title game for a third time in as many seasons, making a quick adjustment to new coach Ryuji Kawai's style. He scored 17.9 ppg, and often picked up points in a hurry by getting to the free-throw line. His 5.2 assists per game ranked fourth in the league and he got his teammates involved in the free-flowing offense.

4. Anthony McHenry (Ryukyu) — The gifted small forward may be this league's best comparison to Scottie Pippen. Defensively, McHenry is paired with the opponent's top player for most assignments, though he steps in and challenges foes at all five positions to score on him, and he holds his own as well as anyone in the league. McHenry shared the team lead in scoring (11.9 ppg) with sharpshooter David Palmer and was the Kings' premier shot-blocker with 63. His playoff MVP award,
including 25 points, three blocks, two steals and two dunks in the title game, put the finishing touches on a super season.

5. Jamel Staten (Chiba) — The do-it-all power forward was the league's fourth-leading scorer (21.2 ppg), No. 3 rebounder (11.0), No. 8 passer (4.4 apg) and top theft artist (2.8 steals per game). The numbers don't lie: Staten excelled for the first-year franchise. But it wasn't just about the stats; he clearly loves to compete and play the game for 40 minutes.

6. Kevin Palmer (Rizing Fukuoka) — The versatile swingman made an instant impact for the Kyushu club this season. He was the joint No.2 scorer (21.6 ppg; see Maurice Hargrow below) and also second in steals (2.5), giving the Rizing a dynamic presence at both ends of the floor.

7. Michael Parker (Shimane Susanoo Magic) — For the fourth consecutive season, Parker took home the scoring crown (23.1 ppg) and fit in nicely with his new club after four standout seasons for Fukuoka. The high-leaping forward grabbed 9.9 rpg, the ninth-best output, and finished third in steals (2.4 per game). Coach Zeljko Pavlicevic had nothing but praise for the way Parker carried himself on the court and set the proper tone for his teammates at practice with hard work and enthusiasm for the task at hand.

8. T.J. Cummings (Oita HeatDevils) — The chiseled forward, son of longtime NBA forward/center Terry, emerged as one of the league's elite frontcourt stars. He hauled in 506 rebounds and scored 21.1 ppg as the team's top contributor in both categories. Teamed up with Taj Finger and former league MVP Wendell White over the final few months of the season, the HeatDevils had a frontcourt trio that no team could consider an easy matchup.

9. Masashi Joho (Toyama Grouses) — The veteran shooting guard was the league's top-scoring Japanese player at 15.3 ppg, and, more importantly, a go-to scorer for coach Kazuaki Shimoji's squad. He never backed down from the challenge, never showed fear of his responsibility: being a top offensive option. Joho brought a winning attitude — and timely steals (1.8 spg, tied for sixth in the league), assists and rebounds — to a franchise that has experienced mediocrity since joining the league in 2006.

10. Derek Raivio (Shinshu Brave Warriors) — With or without the ball in his hands, the high-hoop IQ, feisty guard put his team in position to succeed on offense. Raivio ran off screens and buried jumpers with regularity, drove the lane with reckless abandon to create a shot for himself or his teammates, and he earned trips to the free-throw line with regularity. His 18.5 ppg and 87.4 percent free-throw shooting, 172 assists and 69 steals gave the first-year franchise's new fans something to get excited about game after game.

11. Chris Holm (Niigata Albirex BB) — The league's prototypical big man hauled in 14.3 rpg (746 boards) as he made the smooth transition from being the Sendai 89ers' mainstay in the middle to Niigata's anchor. An underrated passer from the low post, Holm's court vision and awareness helped his teammates, notably Shuhei Komatsu, Yuichi Ikeda and Kimitake Sato and Nile Murry, get good looks on the perimeter and from 3-point range.

12. Ricky Woods (Akita Northern Happinets) — The highlight-reel swingman made his mark in 41 games for coach Kazuo Nakamura's squad, averaging 20.6, while topping the team charts for rebounds and assists. His high-flying offensive arsenal kept fans on the edge of their seats.

13. Jeffrey Parmer & Mike Bell (Hamamatsu and Osaka, tie) — The former, the league's reigning MVP, posted solid numbers (12.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg) while providing leadership under a new coach; the latter filled the paint with muscle and hustle and kept the Evessa in the title hunt after Lynn Washington's departure (see below), averaging 14.5 ppg and 10.0 rebounds.

14. Cohey Aoki (Osaka) — Never afraid to take a shot, the league's only six-time All-Star made a smooth transition to the Evessa after six successful seasons with the Apache. He scored 11.6 ppg, shot 89.5 percent from the foul line (tops in the league for the fourth time) and was always a threat to take the final shot of a game or have a play drawn up for him coming out of a timeout, a sign of true respect for his abilities that he's earned since the league's inception.

15. Nile Murry (Niigata Albirex BB) — The floor leader carried the club under first-year coach Matt Garrison. A veteran of the Toyama Grouses, Osaka Evessa and Rizing Fukuoka in past years, Murry knows the league and used that vast knowledge to help his new club succeed, scoring a team-high 15.2 ppg and topping the charts in assists (165) and steals (62). He remains one of the top rebounding guards in the fledgling circuit.

16. Gary Hamilton — (Fukuoka) — The macho forward had his usual productive season — second in the league in boards (11.4 rpg) and 10th in assists (3.8 per game) — along with 9.9 ppg. Reliable and consistent, the Miami, Florida, product is an immovable force in the paint.

17. Jeral Davis (Shimane) — The 216-cm center was the circuit's No.1 shot blocker (3.8 per game) for the second straight campaign. He also had a rare points-rebounds-blocks triple-double against the Broncos on Jan. 28. You've been warned: Keeping him from getting three to five dunks a game is not an easy assignment.

18. Narito Namizato (Ryukyu) — The youthful point guard, just 22, sparked the champions from start to finish in a banner season. He contributed 11.0 ppg, 4.2 apg (ninth overall) and a team-best 63 steals, meshing nicely with a vast collection of talent.

19. Draelon Burns (Yokohama) — The guard's arrival in early February helped transform the B-Corsairs into a championship contender. His outside shooting skills and ability to score and drive the lane to create scoring opportunities for his teammates were consistent and impressive. Need proof? The B-Corsairs were 17-7 in Burns' 24 games during which he scored at a 12.8 ppg clip. He dished out 64 assists (with 38 turnovers) and made 31 steals.

20. Johnny Dukes & Rick Rickert (Sendai 89ers and Kyoto Hannaryz, tie) — The team's best all-around athlete, Dukes led the 89ers in rebounds and steals and was second in blocks, assists and scoring (15.8 ppg). The Hannaryz post standout hauled in 10.7 rpg and displayed an NBA-level array of moves on offense to helped steer the team to the Final Four for the first time.

Honorable mention:
*Kenny Satterfield (Saitama)# — During a season of turmoil for the Saitama Broncos, Satterfield had a rocky relationship with coach Natalie Nakase after she replaced Dean Murray in November. Satterfield, who was unhappy with his backup role and reduced minutes, dished out a league-high 6.7 apg, but quit the team and left Japan a few weeks before the end of the season.

* Lynn Washington (Osaka)# — The season ended unexpectedly early for the legend-in-the-making power forward and the two-time MVP on March 13, when he was arrested on drug charges. Washington was exonerated of all charges in Osaka, but never returned to the team. He was having another stellar season before the arrest, as the Evessa were battling the Golden Kings for the top spot in the West. Washington's No. 44 jersey will be retired by Osaka, a significant moment in league history. He was the first two-time MVP and the first player in league history to reach 5,000 points.

*Dan Fitzgerald (Sendai) — The former Marquette forward paced the 89ers with 18.9 ppg. He canned 146 3s and nearly 50 percent of his shots from inside the arc.

*Jermaine Boyette (Kyoto) — The crafty guard sped things up for the veteran-laden squad, pumping in 14.2 ppg.

*Naoto Kosuge (Ryukyu) — A no-nonsense contributor for Ryukyu. Averaged 10.5 ppg while playing underrated defense and setting up his teammates to succeed.

*Yu Okada (Shiga Lakestars) — The veteran guard scored 12.9 ppg, second among the league's Japanese players, and drained collected a team-high 59 steals

*Maurice Hargrow (Chiba) — The Jets guard was a potent scorer (21.6 ppg, tied for second with Palmer) and played a significant role for the expansion squad, teaming up with Staten to give the team one of the best combos in the league. His aggressive mind-set and polished game delivered enthusiasm for the boosters and set a good example for his young teammates.

*Taishiro Shimizu (Miyazaki) — The Shining Suns captain scored 11.0 ppg and handed out 191 assists for the short-handed second-year franchise which faded at the end of the season after O'Neal Mims' departure in early April.

*Naoto Takushi (Oita) — The HeatDevils point guard had his best season since helping lead Ryukyu to a championship in 2008-09. He averaged 5.9 apg (No. 2 among all players) and scored 8.3 ppg while directing the HeatDevils offense.

*John "Helicopter" Humphrey (Saitama) — The only foreign player in the league since Day One known by his nickname, the two-time league-scoring champ can still score in bunches (18.4 ppg) and cause chaos on defense (100 total steals, tied for fourth-best average at 2.0 per game). He dropped 52 points on Shinshu on Dec. 10, including an unreal 24-for-24 at the charity stripe.

*David Palmer (Ryukyu) — The Kings forward made 50 percent of his 3-point attempts and shared the team lead in scoring. Impressive.

*Atsuya Ota (Hamamatsu) — The Phoenix center and Best Five member was the lone Japanese to be a top-two rebounder (265 boards) for his club. His hard-nosed defense and play away from the ball were equally valuable for the Eastern Conference champions.

*Thomas Kennedy (Iwate) — The hard-working forward led the squad in scoring (18.0 ppg).

*Takehiko Shimura (Sendai) — The 89ers captain had 269 assists (5.3 apg, No.3 overall) and 72 turnovers. Enough said.

*Akitomo Takeno (Fukuoka) — The explosive guard had an 11.0 ppg campaign and remained a top-three option for the Rizing.

*Lawrence Blackledge (Hamamatsu) — Let go by the Evessa at midseason, Blackledge's ability to contribute added up quickly for the Phoenix — rebounds, blocks, putbacks, steals; you name it, he did it. The team probably wouldn't have reached the title game without Blackledge's hustle and production, I believe.

#-under normal circumstances, both players would vie for Best Five consideration.



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