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Player Preview: What’s Yuta Watanabe’s fit — and can he find another level?

Bench rotations, injury and a dedication to improvement will all play major roles in Watanabe’s season to come.

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors
It could be a make of break year for Yuta Watanabe.
Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Yuta Watanabe is a prototypical Nick Nurse bench player. He’s a defensive-minded, no-quit, hustle machine who does so much of one thing — defense — that you can excuse the things he doesn’t do at the level you would like him to. Yes, that was a long-winded way of saying he’s an excellent defender, but the true mystery of Yuta is in what could come next.

Watanabe has a grand total of three NBA seasons under his belt and for as much as last season counts for anything — it surely doesn’t count for much at all — Yuta hasn’t quite had “the full NBA experience” just yet. He rode the pine over 23 games in two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies where he showed enough tenacity for the Toronto Raptors player development brain trust to pick him up on a 10-day contract. The 10-day contract grew to a two-way contract and the two-way contract was converted to a full NBA contract by the middle of last season under the auspices that there might be an additional gear that has yet to be unlocked for “The Chosen One”.

So what might the next step in Yuta’s progression look like? Well, that depends on how much stock you put into his self-proclaimed, new-found confidence and assertiveness, particularly on the offensive end.

Watanabe showed flashes of an offensive game after his contract was converted. There was some decisiveness off the bounce and the occasional propensity to let it fly from three, but ultimately, Yuta found himself relegated to the quick-swing role in the offense. As a new-ish player who was still finding his way and his minutes, that was okay!

Now, with the departure of Kyle Lowry, the Toronto pecking order isn’t quite what it used to be. Yes, the trio of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet will do an extreme amount of heavy lifting for this year’s squad, but what of the bench? More specifically, what happens when Coach Nurse starts to stagger minutes through the middle of the game? Will Yuta fade into the background like he did in Tampa, or will he push the pace the second he touches the ball like he did in his limited pre-season run? Will he be looking to shoot the ball and initiate his offense? One person who seemed to unlock some easier looks was Scottie Barnes, so it will be interesting to see how much Nick Nurse plays them together.

The true question, really, is how much of an opportunity Yuta will really have. After a solid showing in the pre-season, Watanabe went down with a calf strain that, initially, was thought to be minor but has now lingered to the point that he could miss time into the regular season. With a hungry bench unit that is clamoring for minutes and opportunities, Yuta will find himself re-entering the fray with a bit of a hill to climb. Will it be too late? Might someone like Svi Mykhailiuk. Sam Dekker or Justin Champagnie come out strong and carve themselves a solid role?

One thing Watanabe has going for him is that Nurse already knows what he’s going to get from his hard-nosed, wing-forward. Here’s hoping he will get the opportunity to showcase that there could be so much more to come.