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Player Review: Yuta Watanabe was the right fit on the wrong team

Yuta Watanabe saw himself outside Toronto’s rotation, and G League team, yet suits the Raptors’ profile to a T.

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Picture this: It’s the start of a new NBA season, and you pick up the newest copy of NBA 2K. You head directly to the only game mode which 2K ever cares to put any effort into (shots fired), My Career.

You want to create the best player you can; not only to run through championship after championship, and MVP after MVP, but to also beat everyone you come across in the Park.

To do this, you must create the perfect player. Someone who fits the exact mold of a dominant basketball player. The proper height, length, and overall body type; an athlete who embodies the skills necessary to dominate an entire basketball game.

Sounds like a pretty great Saturday afternoon, right? But wait, there’s more! Picture you are also Masai Ujiri (or Bobby Webster, he deserves some credit too). How does this perfect player look now?

He probably stands at about 6-8, with a wingspan that slightly exceeds that. He weighs in around 210 lbs, defense is his calling card, and if it isn’t naturally, it’s about to be. He has to be able to handle the ball at a decent enough level to create offense, and at least shoot in the mid 30’s percentage wise from 3-point range.

Sounds pretty good right? Now picture 7 of your 9 rotation guys fitting that mold, and just for the fun of it, let’s add some depth that models that exact description as well. Ladies and gentleman, I have just described to you, Yuta Watanabe! Or Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton, Isaac Bonga, D.J. Wilson...

Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Watanabe could not fit Ujiri’s vision of the 2021-22 Toronto Raptors any better. Toronto’s front office clearly had a specific gameplan in mind this past season, and they executed it to perfection. Even to the point where guys such as Watanabe, who could be deemed as a useful hustle player, barely touched the court because of how many guys ahead of him in the rotation bring exactly what he does.

Hustle player is probably the perfect way to describe Watanabe’s game. He’s a guy who is going to give it his all every time he is on the floor. Whether that results in three quick fouls, or some productive bench energy varies from game-to-game.

Describing him as a 3-and-D player might be slightly ambitious. Despite shooting 34.2% from 3-point range, the volume only sat at about two attempts per game, over the course of just 38 games played. And like his overall play, his 3-point shooting can be deemed quite volatile as well.

The most impressive aspect of Watanabe’s game is his shot-blocking. When in low-help, he is dare I say, an elite rim protector? Hides as everyone pulls up the Anthony Edwards dunk from last year.

I’ve always said though: a play that results in getting posterized, typically means you sacrificed your body in an attempt to make a defensive play, rather than allowing the offensive player an easy two points.

Take these plays for example. Regardless of the phantom foul on the first play, Watanabe does a fantastic job beating the driver to the spot, jumping vertically, and extending his arm to make the block. A lot of help defenders wouldn’t even bother making that play, but that’s not the Raptors’ culture, nor is it Watanabe’s mindset.

Watanabe had the third highest block percentage on the team this season at 3.5%. Which, I understand is grasping at straws, but the stat is an undeniable piece of evidence that when Watanabe is on the floor, he blocks shots at a high clip. The only two players above him are Daniel Oturu (7.2%), who only played in three games, and Chris Boucher (4.3%), who is undeniably the best shot blocker on the team.

The other area where Watanabe excels is on the defensive glass. Protecting the rim, defensive rebounding, and really defense as a whole fit hand-in-hand, since they are all centered around one main attribute: effort.

When averaged on a per 36 minute basis, Watanabe is the fourth best defensive rebounder on the team, outside of D.J. Wilson, who only played four games for the Raptors. Yuta Watanabe averaged 6 rebounds per game, per 36 minutes, and the other three ahead of him were Pascal Siakam (6.3), Chris Boucher (6.7), and Precious Achiuwa (6.8).

It’s quite often when Watanabe is on the floor and the opposing team puts up a shot, Yuta will come flying in to secure the ball; often out of control, but also often effectively. Watanabe also only sits behind those three (and Wilson) in defensive rebounding percentage, at 19%. To put that into perspective, former Toronto Raptor, Jonas Valanciunas led the league in rebounding, and held a 31.2% defensive rebounding percentage this season.

On the offensive side of the ball, if Watanabe isn’t ripping and driving, or shooting directly off the catch, he’s typically ineffective. He doesn’t have the tools to break his man down one-on-one, and doesn’t require much help in isolation settings. In fact, Watanabe doesn’t even qualify statistically through Synergy’s Isolation stats for the Toronto Raptors.

NBA.com Isolation Stats
https://www.nba.com/stats/players/isolation/?CF=TEAM_ABBREVIATION*E*tor&sort=POSS&dir=1&SeasonType=Regular%20Season

As a whole, I felt there were areas where Watanabe could have earned a few more minutes. Many times during an 82 game season, energy is something that a team lacks. In the reverse of that, energy is something which Watanabe never lacks.

I do see Nick Nurse’s logic in not wanting to play Watanabe often, as he fits the same archetype as the majority of Toronto’s best players; Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and a few others. However, we saw time and time again, in short stints, Watanabe would have an overall positive impact on the game. The key word there is short.

I personally think Watanabe is a worthwhile piece to bring back on another minimum deal, but I could see Yuta exploring his options in free agency, because he has the potential to crack a rotation as a defensive specialist on some weaker teams. If his future remains in Toronto, it likely remains in a similar roll, with similar productivity.

Overall Grade: C