Turn a Raptors game on in the middle of the second quarter or late third quarter and you’ll see a long, wiry frame not named Chris Boucher scrambling all over the floor. He traps, then recovers, sometimes pokes loose balls away, sometimes grabs a tough rebound, but does it while always being in the right place.
Having been a member of the Memphis Grizzlies the past two seasons and shuttling back and forth between the G League and parent club, it’s uncanny just how smoothly Yuta Watanabe has fit into Toronto’s plans. Just like the start of last season, Nick Nurse has been looking down 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. “No matter whether I play or not, I’m always ready. When I sit on the bench I’m always locked in, always know what’s going on, and I’ve been doing this since my rookie year. Last two years, I didn’t really have an opportunity but right now my opportunity is right there, so I gotta go grab it. I just gotta keep locking in, stay focused even in the games I’m not playing.”
When the Raptors 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 rotation pieces, 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 steal and a block each to give him a shot. He was supposed to be behind the likes of Paul Watson Jr. and Oshae Brissett in the pecking order, and so the challenge was clear in terms of how much he’d need to impress. Watson was offered a full contract but Brissett, despite having the inside lane after being a notable contributor last season, fell out.
“I know my friends and family are really happy. I feel like a lot of people in Japan are happy too."
Watanabe snatched his chance. The 26-year-old is all effort and intensity, gives you the occasional three-pointer, and doesn’t back down from anyone. As the Raptors limped their way to two wins from their first 10 games, Nurse was still trying to decode the best pattern for his rotation. He has noted that this is a team that lacks the experience and know-how of years past, and it appears the base he’s looking to work with starts with showing sound basketball fundamentals and minimizing mistakes.
“That’s kind of Yuta right there,” Nurse said. “He’s kind of giving us supreme effort, never stops running, never stops cutting, he’s always on the glass, he’s coming up with loose balls, that’s kinda his thing.
“He does have a little bit of scoring. It’s not like he’s a non-offensive player, he does have a little bit of scoring that will come when he gets a little more comfortable out there. But just love the energy, cutting, and just hustle plays.”
Of late, the 26-year-old’s contributions have become more important due to Pascal Siakam’s absence with a swollen left knee. Just as Nurse has tasked Siakam with defending smaller guards out on the perimeter, he has been able to do the same with Watanabe. Recently against the Pacers, he managed to do that but also spent his share of time going up against the size of Myles Turner—currently the NBA’s leading shot blocker—and did an admirable job.
“He is a little slender and he does give up some weight to his opponents that he ends up guarding, but he is stronger than he looks and he battles and he gives you maximum effort and fight out there,” Nurse said. “I’m just kind of getting to know him and I like what I see so far.”
For all intents and purposes, Watanabe is the prototypical glue guy. Think the PJ Tuckers, Andre Igoudalas, and Shane Battiers of the world. They’re obviously on the high end of what Watanabe would hope to achieve with his career, but perhaps a former Raptor in Jorge Garbajosa better fits the bill. 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 contributions and cracking this Raptors rotation is hard to understate when factoring in the impact on his native Japan. Although it feels like eons ago, Toronto played in Tokyo about a year-and-a-half ago and the fan base has continued to expand. Media scrums featuring Watanabe have drawn a significant Japanese media presence and Nurse has admirably even stuck around longer to ensure he can answer as many questions about his newest bench contributor as possible.
For Watanabe, he knows his focus and determination to this point is what’s got him here and he hopes that’s what continues to help maintain this sudden rise.
“I know my friends and family are really happy,” Watanabe said. “I feel like a lot of people in Japan are happy too. I just feel like I gotta keep playing hard and keep believing in myself and I hope more people watch my games.”