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What is Yuta Watanabe’s role on this Raptors team?

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Injuries left a temporary hole in the Raptors’ wing rotation, and Yuta Watanabe did his best to fill it. What’s next for him — and can he do more?

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors, Yuta Watanabe Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

All fourth quarter long, Raptors fans were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It was Sunday night, and the Toronto Raptors had held a comfortable lead over the Orlando Magic for three quarters. But this 2020-21 Raptors team hasn’t exactly been lights out with comfortable leads; they’ve held double-digit leads in six of their 12 losses.

And so that deja vu feeling wasn’t unwarranted. The Magic had cut the Raptors’ once-22 point lead to eight with just under 10 minutes to go. Kyle Lowry missed a 15-footer, and the Magic came the other way, looking to make it a two-possession game.

After a dribble hand-off, Terrence Ross came around a screen from Nikola Vucevic. As it has all-too-often lately, the Raptors’ defense broke down, and Ross dished the rock to Vucevic, who had a clear lane to the hoop.

And then Yuta Watanabe came from the weak side and punched Vucevic’s dunk attempt away.

*****

When the Toronto Raptors signed three players to Exhibit 10/training camp contracts this last November, Yuta Watanabe was probably the one that got the least attention.

Henry Ellenson had the Raptors 905 pedigree; he lit it up in Mississauga last season. Alize Johnson was undersized, but was known to have a wicked motor, and had impressive rebounding numbers; he looked like he’d be a Nick Nurse favourite. And besides, most figured that final spot on the team was returning Raptor Oshae Brissett’s to lose.

Not much seemed to stand out about Watanabe. Sure, he had decent size on the wing at 6’8”, but his G League scoring numbers were pretty average; his true shooting percentage in 55 G League games was a solid .586 but his three-point percentage was only 34 percent.

Yet here we are, some two and a half months later, and neither Johnson nor Ellenson are in the NBA, and Watanabe is playing major fourth quarter minutes in close games.

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What makes Yuta’s big block on Vucevic even more impressive is that it’s just one of the fourth quarter highlights he’s given us this week. Here’s another one from the same game, about a minute after the block; with the Raptors still leading by eight, Kyle Lowry probed the paint and found a wide-open Watanabe behind the three-point line:

That triple kicked off a 10-1 Raptors run, and the Raptors never looked back. Yuta played nine minutes in the frame, hit both shots he took, blocked two shots and had a steal.

And let’s not forget about last Friday night, either, when Watanabe scored a career-high 12 points, with seven of them coming in the fourth. You remember that fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings, right? The Raptors entered the period down by 13 points, and stormed back, getting that Kings lead all the way down to one point, on, you guessed it, a bucket from our guy Yuta with 1:08 to go:

I’m a big fan of the symmetry here: we just saw Watanabe take on a veteran big man on the defensive end above, and here he is taking on another, Hassan Whiteside, on the offensive end.

Speaking of Whiteside, Watanabe also went up high to block one of the big man’s shots in that fourth period, and the two got tangled up and came crashing to the floor. Whiteside jumped straight up, looking to start something, but Watanabe kept his cool and said “my bad.” (Whiteside promptly cooled off.)

It was a hard foul, but a good foul — Whiteside might have had a dunk — and it speaks to the energy and the hustle that Watanabe has brought to the floor.

*****

To be fair, injuries have opened the door for Watanabe’s minutes. With both Norman Powell and OG Anunoby temporarily sidelined, the Raptors had a big hole on the wing. But when opportunity knocks, you still have to answer, and Watanabe did just that.

Over the five games heading into Tuesday’s rematch with the Magic, Watanabe averaged eight points, five rebounds, one steal and one block per game; he also shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown, on 3.2 attempts per game. His true shooting percentage spiked up to .566, and even his usage — 15.9 percent — was pretty impressive for a guy who’s very clearly Toronto’s fifth option in most every lineup.

The question, then is whether or not all of the above has been enough to convince Nick Nurse to find more minutes for Watanabe, even when the coach has a full roster of healthy players. Already, Watanabe’s minutes dipped on Tuesday when Powell returned; he played just 11 minutes and took two shots in Toronto’s second straight victory over the Magic. When Anunoby returns, hopefully within the week, those numbers might drop even further.

The thing is, though, Watanabe doesn’t have to play extended minutes to make an impact.

Ultimately, the block on Vucevic is the perfect encapsulation of Watanabe’s play. It was a heads-up defensive play, sliding over when the defense broke down at the point of attack. It was a hustle play, an athletic play, getting up that high to swat away an attempt from a much bigger, much more experienced player. And it was a well-timed play, as it kept the Magic from cutting into the dwindling lead and sent the Raptors the other way in transition.

If Nurse can find 10 minutes a night for that energy, he should continue to get more smart, heads-up play from Watanabe. If those minutes have to come at the expense of someone else, surely they can come at Terence Davis, whose play thus far this season can be described as neither smart nor heads-up.

Watanabe’s earned every one of his minutes the exact same way, and if he keeps it up, I have no doubt he’ll continue to have a role on this Raptors team.