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Player Review: Yuta Watanabe never took a possession off for the Raptors

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Yuta Watanabe was a bright spot for Toronto during a down year — and made winning plays as the team’s glue guy.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Following a four-year college career at George Washington University (including an NIT championship as a starter), the undrafted Yuta Watanabe spent the next two years in Memphis, both with the Grizzlies and their G League affiliate, the Hustle (an apt word to be written across Watanabe’s jersey). Heading into December, you would’ve been forgiven for not recognizing Watanabe’s name on Toronto’s training camp roster.

Of course, this is a whole different story if you’re a basketball fan from Japan, where Watanabe’s Toronto Raptors jersey is the highest-selling jersey of the past year. And the previous paragraph, which seems fairly average among NBA bench players’ stories, becomes pretty incredible when put into context. Labelled “the Chosen One” by Japan Times sportswriter Kaz Nagatsuka, Watanabe moved across the world to attend a prep school in the United States. The next year, he became the first Japanese-born player to receive an NCAA Division I men’s basketball scholarship, and when he debuted for the Grizzlies, he became just the second Japanese player to play in the NBA. Watanabe has not only added a country’s worth of supporters to the Raptors fanbase, but he’s also a massively important figure for the growth of basketball in Japan. As Nagatsuka wrote, “I think Watanabe is genuinely the pioneer.”

But it wasn’t Watanabe’s story that earned him a roster spot on the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors. It was his unending effort and knack for consistently being in the right place at the right time. It was his 6’8” stature, 6’10” wingspan, and impressive agility and fluidity to go with it. It was his astute understanding of angles and defensive rotations. Of course, Watanabe couldn’t have made the regular season roster without showing just enough skill on offense, but it’s in this area that he had the most room to grow — and over the course of the season, he did.

After signing an Exhibit 10 contract with the Raptors, Watanabe impressed coach Nick Nurse enough in camp and the preseason for the Raptors to retain the 26-year-old over prospects like Oshae Brissett and Alize Johnson, and sign him to a two-way contract. “He played really good in all three [preseason] games, there’s no doubt about it,” said Nurse. “I think he’s done everything he possibly can do.” As we’ve come to learn this season, Watanabe doing everything he possibly can is par for the course.

Earning Nurse’s trust was a tough task for anyone trying to stick at the back of the rotation this season. Despite showing promising flashes of his high IQ and constant effort, Watanabe was a DNP in six of the Raptors’ first 15 games and only registered 10+ minutes in three of them. One of the factors in Nurse’s hesitance to play Watanabe was his timidness on offense — the forward scored just three points in each of his three larger-minutes games (16, 19, and 15 minutes apiece). In plays like this one, Watanabe missed an important assertiveness on offense — in this particular example, he had the opportunity for a catch-and-shoot three but didn’t seem to trust his shot, leading to a rushed, contested layup attempt. From late January into early February, Watanabe began settling in offensively and gained more trust from Nurse, playing 10+ minutes in eight of the nine games during that span and scoring in double-digits for his first and second time of the season.

But after sustaining an ankle injury that kept him out for over a week, Watanabe found himself on the outside of the rotation looking in, receiving a new slew of DNPs and games with seven or eight minutes of playing time. It wasn’t until the beginning of April when Watanabe finally became a regular in the Raptors’ rotation, playing 19 minutes per game in his final 21 appearances of the season (a number somewhat inflated by the starters’ absences). Not coincidentally, as Watanabe began to play on a regular basis his comfort level on offense rose visibly, culminating in a career-high 21-point game in a victory over the Orlando Magic and a new, standard NBA contract.

A number of words come to mind when thinking about Yuta Watanabe’s play this season, but there’s one that sticks out in particular: refreshing.

On Yuta’s Rebounding

When you’re blessed with nearly a decade of sturdy centers like Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, it can become easy to forget the importance of rebounding. Raptors fans were quickly reminded of that this season, as the team, struggling with its center rotation and often opting to play small, was getting routinely slaughtered on the boards. The Raptors’ struggles on defense were being exponentially compounded by the ugly rate at which opponents pulled down offensive rebounds, rendering good defensive stops meaningless and leading to the most deflating of wide-open threes.

Enter Yuta Watanabe. He’s not exactly sturdy, nor is he some sort of JV-like rebounding machine. But as the hapless early-season Raptors let opponents crawl all over the boards, it was the Watanabe substitutions which brought relief. With his long body, well-timed jumps, high awareness, and determination to grab every loose ball in sight, Watanabe’s minutes felt, well, refreshing. Finally, the Raptors were actually being rewarded for their defensive stops.

According to NBA.com/stats, the Raptors had a REB% of 50.0 with Watanabe on the court (the best impact of any Raptor with 300+ minutes) this season, which would place them 14th in the NBA, tied with the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ REB% with Watanabe off-court was 47.3 – good for dead last in the league. Interestingly, of those top 14 REB% teams, 12 made the postseason, including all eight teams who advanced to the second round. So it would seem that rebounding is in fact very important, and while the on/off splits might be a bit noisy, the eye test supported evidence that the Raptors were generally better at rebounding with Watanabe on the court.

A nice wrinkle is that Watanabe also has the quickness and a solid-enough handle to put the ball on the floor off of an opponents’ miss and initiate the transition offense.

In this play, Watanabe grabs the rebound, brings the ball past halfcourt himself, scans the court without picking up his dribble, and waits patiently before finding Malachi Flynn for an open three:

On Yuta’s Defense

Many non-Raptors or Grizzlies fans who know Watanabe’s name probably know it from that time Anthony Edwards posterized him. Simply put, it was an incredible dunk over a defender who just couldn’t match Edwards’ athleticism and strength. But while it’s unfortunate that so many people only know Watanabe as the guy who got dunked on, his effort on the play encapsulates what makes Watanabe so effective not only as a help defender, but as the tenth or eleventh man on a team.

In Watanabe’s shoes, so many players around the league would have ducked out of the way, making the “business decision” to give up an uncontested dunk and avoid being on the wrong side of a viral highlight. But for Watanabe, who understands his unsexy role as a glue guy, putting himself at risk of posterization is the business decision — that’s what he gets paid to do. “I think, if I avoid [defending the dunk], I shouldn’t be here anymore and I shouldn’t get any playing time,” said Watanabe about the play. The offense is what will decide his ceiling as an NBA player, but it’s the determination to defend that got him here. “Even if I get dunked on 99 times out of 100, I’ll always jump if there’s a chance I can block one.”

While Watanabe’s admirable approach ended poorly for him on the Edwards play, that same spirit, as well as his keen instincts and quick feet as a help defender, resulted in a plethora of blown offensive plays and even some major defensive highlights.

Another refreshing bit of Watanabe’s game were the closeouts. One area in which the Raptors’ defense failed early in the season was in giving up open threes, in part because opponents had seemed to have figured out the Raptors’ strategy of over-aggressively closing out, and would simply pump-fake the defender out of their shoes to get a good look. But with his blend of length, quickness, and ability to change directions, Watanabe was not only quick in his closeouts, but he also stayed responsibly planted to the ground. Rather than jump into the third row, Watanabe would instead put a hand up to affect the shot, and either used his agility to recover and stay in front of a player attempting to blow by him, or angle his body to use the baseline as a second defender.

Watch in this play as Watanabe closes out quickly but under control, denies the initial drive attempt to the left with his hands up, then shuffles his feet quickly to defend the drive on the other side, before finally leveraging his length to contest the shot:

Yuta Watanabe does so many things well defensively — he’s quick, knows how to use his length and only leave his feet when necessary, and perhaps most importantly for Nurse’s leniency with him: knows how to play within the Raptors’ system. But while Nick Nurse made an effort to prioritize defense this year, defense alone wasn’t enough to get you a concrete spot in the Raptors’ rotation.

On Yuta’s Offense

Yuta Watanabe’s offense starts with his ability to make catch-and-shoot threes. The spacing a reliable shot adds is hugely valuable in giving a primary option like Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet more room to operate. It also provides Watanabe with more chances to blow by defenders as they close out on him, giving him the opportunity to either attack the basket or kick out to shooters. His shooting form is smooth and his height, as well as the release point above his forehead, make it fairly difficult to contest.

With Watanabe’s exact role stuck in a fluctuating, undefined state for a majority of the season, he had difficulty finding a groove and building confidence in his offensive game. But as he became a regular member of the rotation, Watanabe took on a noticeably higher level of assertiveness.

“I always knew that I could shoot at the high level,” said Watanabe, reflecting on the year at his end-of-season presser. “Not playing very much, my confidence went down. But then when I started playing well, more aggressive, taking more shots — it’s the mental things I have to keep working on. Staying confident no matter what.”

Watanabe’s words are reflected in the numbers. In the month of January, when Watanabe was still playing somewhat regular minutes pre-ankle injury, he made half of his 24 three-point attempts. In February and March, playing between DNPs and in fewer minutes, he shot just 1-for-11 from behind the arc. April is when it all came together for Watanabe, who played in each game that month while averaging 19 minutes and scoring nearly eight points per contest. He went 17-for-37 (46%) from three during the month and registered a true shooting percentage of exactly 70%.

But what stands out the most about Watanabe’s progress in April are the numbers detailing his aggressiveness at the rim. And while his increasingly dangerous shooting likely played a role, Watanabe also appeared visibly more comfortable finishing around the basket than he had earlier in the season. According to Basketball Reference, Watanabe made just five of his 17 layup attempts from January through March. In April, he went 9-for-13. Similarly, Watanabe attempted just two dunks from January through March, while he had 10 in the month of April alone.

Watanabe at his offensive peak in the 2020-21 season was a catch-and-shoot threat who could make good passes off the bounce, and had a knack for attacking sleeping defenders with timely cuts. His game has limitations, of course — lineups with Watanabe as the fifth option excelled, while things got dicey when he was flanked by fellow tenth/eleventh men types (there was no shortage of those on the team). Watanabe was a good complimentary player alongside the Raptors’ top scorers, with net ratings of +4.2 and +4.0 while on-court with Siakam and Fred VanVleet, respectively. Meanwhile, the three-man lineup of Watanabe, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Stanley Johnson had a -9.1 rating in 88 minutes. (Lineups with Watanabe and Henry Ellenson both on-court outscored their opponents by 32.1 points per 100 possessions — this is a statistic that means nothing and will live on forever.)

No, there’s no plot twist in Watanabe having a far better net rating in lineups with the Raptors’ best players versus guys who are barely in the rotation. But it does help prove the point that you can only have so many low-usage players (Watanabe) and non-shooters (Bembry, Johnson) on the court at once, regardless of their defense. And while Watanabe’s shooting is good enough — or at least can be good enough — that he could hang on offense with the starters, the team will also look for him to become even more consistent going forward to help bolster bench units. “We need the shooting to go from good to scary,” said Nick Nurse. Watanabe is capable of shooting well enough to warrant playing him for his defense and energy. But with the Raptors hopefully returning next year with better health and depth, the question is likely whether he can do so despite a more irregular role.

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Watanabe’s contract for the 2021-22 season does not become fully guaranteed until opening night, according to Spotrac, while a smaller part of his salary guarantees on August 9. Given Nurse’s comments about Watanabe’s shooting, it can be expected that the the forward’s summer will include working on that area of his game. With only Siakam, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Malachi Flynn under guaranteed contracts for next season, a number of Raptors have surely played their last game for the team.

At 26 years old, Watanabe might lack the intriguing appeal of a younger player with a less defined ceiling. Only time will tell how the team decides to fill out the end of their roster. But as the Raptors hope to return to Toronto next year, they also hope to return to being a winning team. If they decide to keep Yuta Watanabe around, the Raptors will have a glue guy who does everything a glue guy should, who never gives up on a play, and who will put his body and reputation on the line just for a 1% chance at preventing two points from being scored — every single time.