Asian basketball leagues: 2014 review

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As we enter the first week of the new year, let’s spend some time looking back on the top stories from around the Asian professional basketball circuit. We reached out to some of the top basketball reporters from Korea and Japan to help us get a better understanding of what exactly went down in 2014. So here it is.

China (CBA)

Stephon Marbury wins his second CBA championship

This was my first year in China covering the CBA. I chose Beijing due in large part to Stephon Marbury and the amount of traffic stories about him would bring to my blog. But the day I arrived is the day he injured himself and would sit out for half the season. That’s when Beijing signed former Atlanta Hawks swingman Damien Wilkins to help Randolph Morris carry the load in Marbury’s absence. Wilkins became a fan favourite in Beijing and made sure Beijing was in good rankings for the playoffs. Once Marbury returned, he was slow out of the gate but found his groove in the semi-finals against powerhouse Guangdong. In the finals, it was Marbury vs. CBA MVP Lester Hudson. While Hudson may have one the 1-on1 battle, Marbury’s supporting cast stepped up. Randolph Morris would take home the finals MVP award and Sun Yue GOT PAID for being consistent when called upon. Tears ran down Marbury’s face as cameras surrounded him in the dressing room post-game. It was Marbury’s second title in three seasons as a Beijing Duck.

Wang Zhizhi calls it quits after 15 years of professional basketball

I first heard of Wang Zhizhi when I was 14 years-old playing EA’s NBA 2005 (the one with Carmelo Anthony on the cover). He was a bench player for the Miami Heat. Fast forward to ten years down the road and I’m literally standing right next to him at the 2014 CBA All-Star game. I thought to myself this is the biggest human being I’ve ever seen in my life. I was sure this statement would last quite sometime, but all of a sudden Yao Ming shows up and, well, Yao Ming should be a natural wonder of the world. The man is bigger than life. It’s only fitting that Yao Ming is mentioned in this post because for a while the Wang Zhizhi vs. Yao Ming battle was a constant argument in China. Wang Zhizhi was the first Chinese player to be drafted in the NBA when he was chosen 36th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1999 NBA draft. Wang Zhizhi is a local Beijing hero. Prior to his struggles in the NBA, Wang was a force for the Bayi Rockets, China’s military team (located in Beijing). He would lead them to six straight titles before crossing the pacific ocean to join the NBA. He was honored last season for his outstanding career and dedication to Chinese basketball before official announcing his retirement and the end of the year.

South Korea (KBL) – KBL reporter Son Daebum of Jumpall Magazine

The biggest story out of Korea this year was winning 2014 Asian Games gold medal. How big was this for Korean basketball and what does this do for the future of basketball in Korea?

(Son) Most important thing about it all was to show the international countries that Korean basketball is still alive. It also proved that Korean basketball has strong potential to not only young players but also to a nation-wide audience. It gave a positive hope to young generations. At the same time, it is little bit sad that we couldn’t use this opportunity well. That attention and interest didn’t extended to KBL at all.

This year, the KBL brought in a new commissioner, Kim Young Ki. What kind of changes did he make in his first year/half season of commissioner?

(Son) The new FIBA rules were imposed this year but it feels like it was rushed in. It would be better to impose the rules after some trial runs here and there. I feel like there are still exist some ambiguous rules. And also, I honestly can’t find any positive things to say after the new commissioner, Kim Young Ki took over KBL. I expect more changes to come in the next few years and hope it is effective to Korean basketball.

I predicted the biggest KBL story of this year to be the return of Ha Seung Jin. But he’s been pretty quiet so far. What’s going on with the Korean player to ever play in the NBA?

(Son) It’s true that Ha Seoung Jin lost a lot of basketball sense because of his time (2 years) in the mandatory army service. As you know, it is little bit more difficult to recover stabilization when you are 7-feet tall. Considering his body, I think fans need to wait one more season for him to fully recover. Also, he is having tough times for his injuries too. I am sure he will get better as time passes on.

Japan (BJ-League) – Japan basketball reporter Ed Odevan of The Japan Times

Obviously the biggest story of the year comes late in the 2014 calendar year with the officials at FIBA banning Japan from all international activity? What kind of message did this send throughout the basketball committee of Japan?

(Ed) The message sent is that changes will be forced upon the JBA, whether it likes it or not, and the TBD task force will have a lot of say in the future shape of the structure of the country’s basketball governing body and men’s league(s). My own view is that FIBA’s target of six months to reform this colossal mess is both naive and overly optimistic. I think 2 years is a more likely target; there are too many variables to work out. Unless all team and league executives simply wave the towel and say, “Whatever, just do it and get it done.”

When talking about the Japanese Basketball Association, what absolutely needs to change in 2015 to get the national team back on track?

(Ed) More players on the Japan men’s national team would benefit from playing ball overseas. More would also benefit from a national draft and competitive draft tryouts here in Japan – one national draft. That should be a focal point of overhauling the NBL and bj-league. That additional competition to get placed on teams would be a good motivational force for up-and-coming players here.

Yuki Togashi took the year by storm with an excellent performance at the NBA Summer League followed by a contract from the Dallas MAvericks D-League team. What’s your take on the instant success of this up and coming Japanese baller?

(Ed) Togashi benefited from playing high school ball in the United States at prep powerhouse Montrose Christian School, the same school that Kevin Durant once attended in Maryland. That obviously gave him extra confidence and U.S. style hoop smarts when he returned to Japan to play pro ball in the bj-league. He is quick, hard-working and hungry to grow. The D-League is the perfect place for him right now. Developing a few more moves on offense and learning to use his quickness more on defense are keys.

Philippines – Gilas Pilipinas basketball reporter Enzo Flojo of hoopnut.com

The year 2014 went from a year to remember (2014 FIBA World Cup) to a year that can be forgotten (2014 Incheon Asian Games). How do you explain this roller coaster year for Gilas?

(Enzo) There were things we could have controlled and things beyond our control.

Certainly, going up against some of the best teams in the world during #Spain2014 (FIBA World Cup 2014) gave Gilas Pilipinas a new experience. The team was able to gain control in most of their games only to falter in the final minutes. It was like a running gag — the Filipinos would build sizeable leads only to get the rug pulled from under them in the end.

Still, I love how the team, despite loss after loss, didn’t lose heart. They fought till the end and gained the country’s first win in a FIBA World Championship tournament in 40 years. That in itself was a milestone worth the long and arduous journey to Spain.

Things were looking up for Gilas on the run up to the 2014 Asian Games, but the preparations hit several snags when top playmaker Jayson Castro was sidelined by injury and naturalized player Andray Blatche was found ineligible to play in the Asian Games.

The former was something perhaps beyond the team’s control. Injuries, after all, can happen to the best of players even in the best of times, and that certainly seemed like what happened to Castro.

The latter, however, was something Gilas should have been able to foresee. Gilas officials claimed that they got clearance for Blatche to play in Incheon from Asian Games personnel, but, apparently, this perceived clearance was unofficial. The Olympic Council of Asia released a statement, in spite of an appeal from FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann himself to let Blatche play, that the former Washington Wizard and Brooklyn Net could not don the Filipinos’ colors. It was an unexpected setback that started Gilas on the wrong foot, and the team just wasn’t able to adjust completely.

To make things worse, a couple of controversial moments in the Asian Games (e.g. Coach Chot Reyes’s calling out June Mar Fajardo and decision to shoot at the team’s own basket) compounded the national team’s woes. The team finished 7th overall, which is the country’s worst finish in Asian Games Men’s Basketball history.

Reyes out, Baldwin in…. your thoughts?

(Enzo) I’m saddened by the departure of coach Chot Reyes. He steered the team to unprecedented heights during his tenure as head coach and he helped pushed Pinoy hoops back to a high level of respectability.

His replacement, Tab Baldwin, should be able to continue Gilas’s gains and, potentially, take the team even further. With his unparalleled experience and success in international hoops, Baldwin definitely knows what it takes to win. He has set milestones for almost every country he has coached, and I’m hoping his streak won’t end with Gilas.

Perhaps my only concern is how Gilas players and fans will receive him. When he was named as official team head coach, there was pretty much a lukewarm response from the media and fans. I believe that there’s really just one win to change that, and that’s to win.

What does 2015 have in store for Gilas?

(Enzo) I think the team is planning to join, at the very least, the 2015 Jones Cup and, of course, the 2015 FIBA Asia Championships. I doubt if Gilas’s top tier squad will be sent to the South East Asian tourneys (the SEABA and SEA Games), but I’m sure coach Tab will still handle those teams in some capacity.

This early, coach Tab has already set lofty goals, aiming to win the 2015 FIBA Asia tournament and, consequently, qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. Should he succeed in steering Gilas to the title in China later this year, that will be the Pinoys’ first major FIBA Asia title in 30 years.

Naturally, the same hurdles that plagued past iterations of the team will be coach Tab’s biggest challenges, too. The PBA calendar will probably end in June (the latest in Asia), which will give Gilas a relatively short time to prepare for both the Jones Cup and FIBA Asia. Another big challenge is actually getting all the players on his wishlist to be officially named to the national pool. Local sports politics has been a big stumbling block in really bringing together all bona fide top-level players of the country, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Nick Bedard (@bedardnick) is the editor-in-chief of Basketballbuddha.com.

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