The B. League has been allowing more young, amateur players to compete in the circuit through a specially appointed player system for the past few seasons.
B. League officials, however, may be forced to re-evaluate the process in the wake of significant injuries suffered by some of those players this year.
In early February, the Gunma Crane Thunders’ Tensho Sugimoto and the Chiba Jets Funabashi’s Sota Okura — who are both still college students — suffered severe damage to the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in their knees last month.
Both played in the B. League via the league’s specially appointed player system, which allows high school and college who are 22 and under to sign an amateur contract and play with a B. League team for up to three months during a season.
“To be honest, it’s tough, pitiful and frustrating,” a frustrated Okura wrote in a Twitter post.
Jets general manager Yuta Ikeuchi said in a statement that he felt “extremely responsible” for allowing someone the club is using on loan to get hurt. Okura suffered his injury during a home game against the Shinshu Brave Warriors.
“We would like to express our utmost apologies to the officials of Tokai University for letting the injury happen, something you must avoid by any means when you sign a collegiate player,” Ikeuchi said.
Sugimoto, a Nihon University senior, is expected to need about nine months to recover from his injuries, while Okura, who has played for Japan’s U-22 team and will be a senior this year, is likely to be out for a year.
Nearly 40 amateur players have signed with B1 or B2 teams this season.
The B. League is the highest level of basketball in Japan and the early entry system was introduced as a way to provide young players with opportunities to get familiar with the professional environment from an early age. After the injuries to Okura and Sugimoto, the system may have to be reviewed.
Junpei Yoshioka, the physical performance manager for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, isn’t rushing to demonize the system, because most of the players who use it are physically ready for the B. League.
He said powerhouse schools such as Tokai and Aoyama Gakuin University boast legitimate strength and conditioning programs.
“Actually, many of those players have better (physical) attributes than some B. League players,” Yoshioka told The Japan Times in an online interview.
Yoshioka said the biggest problem is that players do not have ample time to fully acclimatize themselves with their B. League clubs. They usually join their teams in December or January, after the conclusion of the high school and college season and a couple of months after the pro campaign kicks off.
“No matter how good their physical attributes are, they come into environments where they have to get accustomed to the playing style and culture of their respective teams,” Yoshioka said. “Unlike at college, they have to adapt to being in a basketball-only environment on a daily basis. They need time to adapt while the teams need to give them a certain amount of playing time. I do not think you can completely eliminate the risks.”
Teenagers playing in the professional ranks is not a rarity around the world. Many NBA players, such as LeBron James, who began playing in the NBA at age 19, make their pro debuts after graduating from high school or after one year of college.
Some start out even earlier in Europe, where both Luka Doncic and Ricky Rubio competed in top-tier leagues in their mid-teens.
Yoshioka, though, stressed that even if players are physically ready, playing in a pro league as a college student makes things a little different, especially for upperclassmen.
“I think it’s a sort of a ‘job-hunting period’ for them, for seniors in particular,” Yoshioka said. “And they feel like they need to come up with results and have good performances while also showing what kind of people they are.”
Yoshioka has had to exercise even more caution this season, with the Brave Thunders acquiring Reoto Yonesu, an 18-year-old player who hadn’t even graduated from high school when he joined the team.
Yoshioka said Yonesu, who led Higashiyama High to second place at the 2020 Winter Cup national championship, did not seem to have paid much attention to physical training before arriving at Kawasaki.
Yoshioka said the trainers have had to teach Yonesu, who will enroll at Nihon University next month, the basics of how to care for his body.
The 176-cm, 60-kg Yonesu debuted for the Brave Thunders against the Levanga Hokkaido on Feb. 13.
“I believe from the standpoint of the club and coaching staff, they wanted to give him a chance to play,” Yoshioka said. “I told them to make sure we’re on the same page and that there were risks (of injuries). But I was convinced (it was OK for him to play) because of the discussions we had in advance.”
Yoshioka also said the system has been a hot topic among strength coaches and athletics trainers around the country since the injuries suffered by Okura and Sugimoto.
He said it might be time for the league to review the system in order to prevent injuries.
Yoshioka believes that while it’s beneficial for young amateur players to experience a pro environment, they may not have to actually play in games.
“I think it’s a very good thing for them to participate in practices and just to be part of their clubs,” he said.
A league spokesperson said that the injuries to Sugimoto and Okura have been a subject inside the league office and hinted that the circuit could discuss if it needs to make tweaks to the specially appointed player system after this season.
“The specially appointed players are about to finish their stints this year and it’s not that we need to make adjustments regarding the system right away,” the spokesperson said. “But if we are to talk about it, it would be after this season’s finished.”
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