Phoebus sparkle in their title runThe Korean Basketball League’s 54-game season is now past the halfway point, and last season’s runner-up has emerged as the front-runner in contending for this year’s championship.
Mobis Phoebus finished first in last year’s regular season, but were swept in four games by the Samsung Thunders in the championship series. But thanks to their depth and the development of their starting point guard, the Phoebus are in a good position to get another crack at the league title.
Through Sunday, the Ulsan-based team led the KBL with a 20-9 record, 1.5 games ahead of the KTF Magic Wings. Before falling to the last place SK Knights 88-81 at home on Saturday, the Phoebus had won a league-record 12 straight home games.
The key behind the hot streak has been the team’s defense: the Phoebus ranks among the league leaders in points allowed and field-goal defense. They also have the fewest turnovers, with just 11.5 per game through Sunday, nearly five fewer than the next team, the Knights.
The head coach, Yoo Jae-hak, is famous for his defense-first approach, but when asked to comment on the team’s recent streak, he deferred to his players.
“Our guys have played well as a unit, especially after going through some big playoff games last season,” Yoo said at a press conference in late December.
He credited the efforts of his bench players. Forward Lee Byung-suk, a 42-percent shooter from behind the three-point line, has been a key scorer off the bench, and he made five three-pointers in the Christmas Day victory over the Dongbu Promy. His defensive work, which earned him a spot on the league’s all-defense team the last two seasons, has been less consistent this season ― Yoo briefly put him in the starting lineup but took him out to “give him something to play for” ― but some opposing players, including the league’s fifth-leading scorer, Nate Johnson of the Thunders, call him the defender they least want to face.
Then there’s the 11-year veteran Woo Ji-won, who captured his first career Player of the Month honors in December largely for coming off the bench to provide three-point shooting and defensive sparkle.
Woo, 33, was among the most popular athletes in Korea in the early 1990s with Yonsei University, his dazzling good looks and sharp shooting touch bringing thousands of teenage female fans to arenas on weekends. But with his contemporaries slowly fading to reduced roles, Woo was no exception, especially with his “shoot-first, ask-questions-later” approach, which pegged him as a one-dimensional player.
Despite being the team’s highest-paid player at 240 million won ($257,000) per season, he played sparingly in last year’s playoffs, logging less than 10 minutes per game in the team’s drive to the finals.
The frustrated Woo spoke to Yoo about retirement at the beginning of this season. But the coach, who was an assistant on Woo’s Yonsei squad, talked him out of it and told Woo that his contribution to the team could come from areas other than his perimeter shooting.
“I decided I needed to battle more down low and get active on the boards,” said the 193-centimeter (6’ 4”) forward, whose career rebounds per game average was a meager 2.1 entering this season. He is grabbing 3.4 boards a game this year, but it’s the effort that counts for Yoo.
“I am grateful for Woo’s change of heart and for his newfound determination,” Yoo said.
Apparently, his presence in the lineup has been good karma for the team. With Yang Dong-geun away for the Doha Asian Games, Woo started several games from mid-November to mid-December. The team won 11 of the 13 games in which he started, and when Woo scored at least 10 points, the Phoebus were 12-3.
But scoring is not the first thing on Woo’s mind. He is averaging a career-low 9.8 points a game, but says he wants to win the league’s “best sixth man” award.
“Everyone on this team thinks defense first, and after each game, we all check to see who got the most rebounds,” Woo told the press after getting the player of the month award.
Although Woo was the December MVP, the Phoebus season-long MVP has to be the third-year point guard Yang Dong-geun, who’s emerging as the league’s best all-around guard.
The former rookie of the year does have an MVP award on his resume, receiving the honors along with the Samsung Thunders center Seo Jang-hoon last season.
Yang is a favorite for MVP this season, with career high averages in points (15.8) and assists (6.3) for the first-place team. The league hands out a separate MVP award for its foreign players.
Yang logged nearly 240 minutes of playing time in Doha, the most on the national team. He also played at shooting guard, alongside his rival Kim Seung-hyun of the Daegu Orions, and said playing on the international stage helped him in several ways.
“Playing at shooting guard taught me a lot about offensive aspects of the game,” Yang told reporters after returning from the Asiad, where the team finished a disappointing fifth. “I’ve also become more confident facing taller players.”
Speaking of confidence, Yoo, a star point guard in his playing days, said he noticed an extra hop in Yang’s steps after the Asian Games.
“He made strides in his game after Doha,” Yoo said after Yang’s second game back from the Asiad on Dec. 20. “He is now closer to being the floor general that we hoped all along he would become.” Knowing the perfectionist nature of his head coach, Yang told the daily Sports Seoul on New Year’s Day, “I would be an even better player if I did half the things the coach asks me to do.”
But he added, with the necessary modesty, that he’s a team player and just wanted to avoid messing up the team’s 11-1 mark while he was gone.
by Yoo Jee-ho