Turn one Birds of prey bet on in the middle of the second quarter or late third quarter and you see a long, stringy frame that is not named Chris Boucher encrypts across the floor. He catches, recovers, sometimes he removes loose balls, sometimes takes a tough rebound, but does so while always being in the right place.
After being a member of Memphis Grizzlies the last two seasons and commuting back and forth between the G-league and the parent club, it’s incredibly smooth Yuta Watanabe has fitted into Toronto’s plans. Just like at the beginning of last season, Nick Nurse has looked down on his bench for players who will raise their hand and make a difference and the second Japanese NBA player ever (Yuta Tabuse was the first) has done just that.
“I’m a hard worker, I’m always in the gym getting ready for the game,” Watanabe said after helping the Raptors to a victory over the Pacers. “Whether I play or not, I’m always ready. When I sit on the bench, I’m always locked up, I always know what’s going on, and I’ve been doing it since my rookie year. The last two years I did not really have an opportunity but right now my opportunity is right there, so I have to grab it. I just have to keep locking in, staying focused even in the games I do not play. ”
When the birds of prey first invited Yuta Watanabe to training camp, it was simply an opportunity to compete. Toronto has made a habit of turning G League contributors into NBA runners-up, and they saw enough during his 22 games in the G League last season where he averaged 17.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists along with a theft and a block each give him a shot. He would be behind such Paul Watson Jr. and Oshae Brissett in the picking order, and so the challenge was clear as to how much he would need to impress. Watson was offered a full contract but Brissett, despite having the inner lane after being a remarkable contributor last season, dropped out.
“I know my friends and family are really happy. I feel that many people in Japan are happy too. “
Watanabe snatched his chance. The 26-year-old is all effort and intensity, gives you occasional triple pointers and does not go back from anyone. When the Raptors limped to two wins from their first ten games, the Nurse was still trying to decode the best pattern for her rotation. He has noted that this is a team that lacks experience and knowledge from previous years, and it seems that the base he wants to work with starts with showing basic basketball-based foundations and minimizing mistakes.
“It’s kind of Yuta there,” said the nurse. “He’s kind of giving us the utmost effort, he never stops running, he never stops cutting, he’s always on the glass, he comes with loose balls, that’s quite his thing.
“He has some points. It’s not like he’s a non-offensive player, he has some points that come when he gets a little more comfortable out there. But just love the energy, cut and just stress. ”
Of late, the 26-year-old’s contribution has become more important due to Pascal Siakam’s absence with a swollen left knee. Just as the nurse has instructed Siakam to defend smaller guards outside the perimeter, he has been able to do the same with Watanabe. Recently against the Pacers, he managed to do so but also spent his part of the time going up to the size of Myles Turner – currently the NBA’s leading shot blocker – and did an admirable job.
“He’s a little thin and he gives a certain weight to his opponents that he stops guarding, but he’s stronger than he looks and he fights and he gives you maximum effort and fights out there,” says the nurse. “I just get to know him and I like what I see so far.”
For all intents and purposes, Watanabe is the prototypical glue guy. Think PJ Tuckers, Andre Igoudalas and Shane Battiers in the world. They are obviously at the high end of what Watanabe would hope to achieve with his career, but perhaps a former raptor in Jorge Garbajosa is better suited. The Spaniard maximized the skills he had at his disposal and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
The importance of Watanabe’s contribution and to crack this Raptors’ rotation is difficult to underestimate when considering the impact on his native Japan. Although it feels like forever years ago, Toronto played in Tokyo about a year and a half ago and the fans have continued to expand. Media scrums with Watanabe have garnered a significant Japanese media presence and the nurse has admirably even stayed longer to ensure he can answer as many questions about his latest bench contributor as possible.
For Watanabe, he knows that his focus and determination on this point is what got him here and he hopes that is what continues to help sustain this sudden upswing.
“I know my friends and family are really happy,” Watanabe said. “I feel that many people in Japan are happy too. I just feel like I have to keep playing hard and keep believing in myself and I hope more people watch my games. ”
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