Japan’s ‘chosen one’ has big dreams

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

He grabs rebounds and blocks shots inside, he sprints as fast as anyone else and he hits jumpers with a silky shooting touch.

That’s what 18-year-old Yuta Watanabe does. He does it all and has everything a basketball player could hope to have, and that’s why he gets the “Chosen One” treatment.

Although he had been selected for provisional national team squads before, Watanabe still seemed somewhat reserved when he went through drills during a recent training camp in preparation for the May 16-21 FIBA East Asia Championship in Incheon, South Korea.

But that wasn’t the case once the team started playing intra-squad games at the end of the practice session on Friday at the National Training Center, where Watanabe gave a full display of his skills.

“I’ve felt that I have been able to play on this team since the training camp started,” said Watanabe, who mainly plays as a small forward. “I think I’ll gain more confidence the more I play here.”

Born to parents with experience of playing in Japan’s top basketball leagues (his mother, Kumi, played for the women’s national team as well), Watanabe, a 201-cm versatile player, is determined to maximize his potential and become the best he can be.

Watanabe, who led Jinsei Gakuen High School of Kagawa Prefecture to the runnerup spot at the last two All Japan High School Tournaments, has decided to cross the Pacific to the United States. In September, he will attend St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Connecticut, with an eye on enrolling at an NCAA Division I school next year.

“My immediate goal is to play at a Division I school,” Watanabe said. “I know it’s an extremely high goal, but ultimately I would like to make it to the NBA.”

Watanabe, who named the Los Angeles Lakers and their superstar Kobe Bryant as his favorite team and player, didn’t envision going to America earlier in his high school life and thought only about which Japanese college he would attend. But eventually he got caught up with the idea as he improved as a player. He began thinking about attending a U.S. university after the All Japan Tournament in his junior season.

“I came to think, if I had a chance, I wanted to do it,” Watanabe said. “Because there aren’t so many that have that kind of an opportunity.”

As much as Watanabe wants to become a special player, members of the national team think this innocent-looking guy is the future of Japanese basketball. Japan’s men’s national team has struggled in recent years, and the last time it made a top-three finish at the Asia Championship was back in 1997 in Saudi Arabia.

Although Watanabe, who weighs just 73 kg, clearly lacks physical strength at this point, nobody thought it was a ridiculous decision by the Japan Basketball Association and men’s national team coach Kimikazu Suzuki to call him up for the A team.

“Watanabe is 201 cm but can play like a guard,” Suzuki said. “He’s not good enough to be on this team yet, but eventually he’s going to be (Japan’s) ace player. We all know his capabilities and we intend to help him develop.”

Japan captain Ryota Sakurai backed Suzuki’s words. He said he was impressed that Watanabe matched up well with Kosuke Takeuchi, who is taller by 5 cm, during the open practice session.

“He doesn’t have a strong physical presence, but he kept up with Kosuke,” Sakurai said. “As the head coach said, once he gets more physical strength, he’ll be a player who will represent the Japanese national team. And I’m looking forward to that.”

Who knows? If he does all the right things and stays on the right track, he could be a great, unstoppable all-around player like LeBron James or Kevin Durant for Japan in the future.

The top five teams in the East Asia Championship will advance to August’s FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, and the top three finishers in the Philippines will earn spots at next year’s FIBA World Cup in Spain.