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Player Review: Is Yuta Watanabe part of Toronto’s future?

Yuta Watanabe defied the odds and grabbed a roster spot with the Raptors. But can he become part of the future with Toronto? He may be closer to doing so than we think.

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

On the last day to finalize their opening night roster, the Toronto Raptors surprised us all. They decided to retain one of their training camp invitees, Yuta Watanabe, on a two-way contract to fill out the back half of their roster. In the process, he beat out Alize Johnson, Henry Ellenson, and the returning Oshae Brissett for the final slot on the team ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Before the start of training camp the odds were against Watanabe. The Raptors already had a 17-man roster made up of incumbent players and recent bigger name signees. None of the training camp invitees were expected to pull off the improbable — and even out of the three invitees, Watanabe’s chances were maybe not even as good as, say, Ellenson’s. But not only did Yuta have an excellent training camp, he added some solid preseason play too.

Along the way, we got a glimpse of what Watanabe can do playing with some of Toronto’s rotation players and, more importantly, against some higher quality opponents. He ended up playing approximately 10 minutes per game in the preseason, and while the numbers don’t stand out (4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3-of-5 from three), the eye test suggests he’s a good fit with the Raptors.

Raptors Fit

Coach Nick Nurse likes players who can defend and shows further preference to players that are multi-positional defenders. Watanabe fits that bill, as he’s pretty good at defending in space and can use his physical tools to adjust to covering certain positions. If nothing else, Watanabe’s defensive instincts and IQ fit with the Raptors’ scrambling, switching, rotating defense that focuses on making the ball-handler uncomfortable and out of rhythm. Adding to that, Watanabe is also an excellent help defender, especially around the paint, and can provide a modest shot-blocking presence for Toronto.

Offensively, Watanabe can be a secondary facilitator as he sees the floor well. In this, he’s able to recognize an open teammate and quickly hit that open man. He can also set up his teammates, which is useful for him because he’s not really a player who’s going to break down his defender or create an opportunity by himself. Fortunately, Watanabe’s opportunism extends into the transition game as well — he can grab a rebound and push the pace to make something happen in the open floor.

Another positive aspect of Watanabe’s offensive game: he has solid cutting instincts going towards the basket. What’s more, he’s got a knack for seeing a teammate in potential distress as they navigate through the paint. This recognition enables Watanabe to cut into position for a potential dump-off pass, which he can finish using some quick hops for a dunk or his soft touch around the rim.

Areas of Concern

In a way, I’m a little bit skeptical about whether having Watanabe on a two-way contract is the best way to maximize his talent. He’s had a couple of seasons with the Memphis Hustle, and based on the games I’ve revisited, he’s actually similar to Toronto’s (former two-way contract player) Paul Watson. Yuta is also at that point where he’ll need rotation minutes to take the next step in his career.

Watanabe has shown growth in production, efficiency, and overall improvement when comparing his 2019 and 2020 numbers and play. He could be ready for more in Toronto, even though it doesn’t seem likely that “more” will be there for him. Still, this doesn’t mean Watanabe doesn’t have anything to gain with the Raptors 905 in the G League. A few aspects of his game — such as his perimeter shooting — could use more in-game reps. While he did show improvement shooting from behind the arc, Watanabe will need continuous in-game reps to maintain proficiency and confidence in his shot.

Yuta Watanabe’s shot chart for 2018-2019 season with the Memphis Hustle
Yuta Watanabe’s shot chart for 2019-20 season with the Memphis Hustle

Another area of improvement will have to be Watanabe’s shot selection. His year-to-year improvement with the Memphis Hustle showed he could cut down his midrange/long-two shots. With his deft touch in the paint and budding three-point shooting, there’s no reason to assume Watanabe can’t refine his shot spectrum. Finally, I’m excited to see Yuta more as a facilitator or secondary playmaker setting up Jalen Harris and Breein Tyree with the 905. They’re both shoot-first guards, so it’ll be interesting to see how the 905 use Watanabe’s play-making abilities in counterpoint to the team’s other talents.

Can Yuta Crack the Rotation?

As a two-way contract player, it’s tough to expect Watanabe to crack the rotation for Toronto — but it’s not impossible. Mosty recently, we’ve seen Canadian Luguentz Dort crack the Oklahoma City Thunder’s rotation and eventually start for them in the playoffs last year. He turned his two-way contract into a breakout season. Now, can Watanabe do the same?

Looking at the opening night roster — and assuming the Raptors roll with Aron Baynes, Chris Boucher, and Alex Len at centre — this is where Watanabe could be in the depth chart:

The good thing about Watanabe’s situation based on the Raptors’ wing depth is that he’s not too far off, and his size and two-way skill-set complements OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam’s game. Perhaps if Nurse goes to the Siakam/Anunoby PF-C small-ball front court, Watanabe might earn a look with them as he could bring additional size and length without sacrificing speed and versatility. Of course, there’s always the chance Watanabe will get his chance to play with the Raptors due to injury or rest (or if, heaven forbid, there’s a COVID outbreak on the team).

That’s all hypothetical though. My bet for now is that we won’t see much of Watanabe as part of the Raptors’ main rotation — but when he does play: we will like what we see.