Teen standout Watanabe faces major challenges in pursuit of NBA dream

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

When young athletes leave their home nation for a bigger challenge, nobody can really halt their overflowing passion and hope.

But at times, the athletes ought to be advised or given direction, helping them not get completely get lost or blow their careers.

Take 18-year-old Yuta Watanabe, for instance. He recently announced his plans of going to the United States to further his career goals. He revealed that he plans to go to St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Connecticut, and then enroll at an NCAA Division I school. Ultimately, he wants to be an NBA player.

A 201-cm player with a silky shooting touch and moves, Watanabe is considered a phenom, the first of his kind in Japan basketball. At his age, he’s already made the men’s national team.

Watanabe probably has a rough idea that the competition in the U.S. is much tougher than in Japan.

But does he know how much tougher? Plus, is this the right thing for him to do in order to really develop as a player and become the best he can be?

There have been numerous Japanese-born players who have competed at lower-division schools, including NCAA Division II institutions. But guard Keijuro Matsui, who played at Columbia University (2005-09) and is currently with the Toyota Motors Alvark of the NBL (renamed JBL), is one of only two Japanese men who have competed at the top collegiate division in the United States. Alvark guard Taishi Ito, who went to the University of Portland, is the other.

Former Duke University and NBA player Antonio Lang claims that Japanese-born players have to consider about playing in the U.S. carefully, because he doesn’t think Japanese players fully know how tough it is to succeed in America, the birthplace of the sport.

“I really like Watanabe,” said Lang, who’s the head coach of the Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins of the NBL. “But the language barrier is tough to overcome. The basketball culture in the States is different also. Americans are aggressive and the
game is more physical.”

Watanabe weighs only 73 kg and resembles a thin stick at the moment.

Lang, who won back-to-back NCAA championships with Duke in 1991 and 1992, recognizes that the competition level is much stronger in U.S. basketball, starting at the youth level, not just in the college and pro ranks.

“The high school players now are doing pro workouts and play games year-round,” Lang said. “The youth basketball programs in the States, such as the AAU programs (Amateur Athletic Union, one of the largest non-profit volunteer sport
organizations in the country), are more advanced than any program in Japan.”

Lang, who played in the NBA for eight years, added that even the level of prep school basketball is higher than top Japanese college leagues.

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Meanwhile, although he’s never seen Watanabe play, Toshiba Brave Thunders star Nick Fazekas, also a former NCAA D-I and NBA player, supported the youngster’s decision to make a leap to the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

“I would definitely say it’s doable,” said Fazekas, who suited up for the University of Nevada and the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers.

“At (6-foot-7), he definitely has a chance. I do think the whole language barrier could be a big obstacle for him as well as the competition level. But you’ve got to remember there are so many different D-I programs and so many leagues that it’s ultimately a lot of different levels at the D-I level.”

There are more than 300 D-I programs in the NCAA.

Lang said that Watanabe would have to show off his skills as a player right away in prep school in order to attract attention from a D-I program.

“Watanabe has to be an alpha male to dominate at the prep school level,” Lang said. “He will definitely get better, but how will he handle all of the other difficulties — language, culture, home sickness, etc.?”

Fazekas appeared slightly more optimistic about the Kagawa Prefecture native than Lang. The 27-year-old center said that it’s possible to “make the NBA dream come true” from a mid-D-I school.” Then he continued, “But I will say D-I can be tough because there are always new recruits coming in and guys that want your spot. (Watanabe) can do it if he decides to put everything into it.”

Despite all of the details cited above, Lang said that he respects the fact that Watanabe is pursuing a path that not many Japanese players would take.

“I am pulling for him and wish him the best,” Lang said.

But, if not for Watanabe personally, Lang offered a more realistic way for Japanese-born players in general if they want to achieve their ultimate goal of making it in the NBA.

Lang said that he wants Japanese players to emulate what Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Yao Ming (former Houston Rocket) and the Gasol brothers, Pau (Los Angeles Lakers) and Mark (Memphis Grizzlies), did,
which is to dominate in their own countries first.

“I think Japanese players should make Japanese basketball stronger. Make the national team stronger. Dominate Asia, dominate college and dominate the Japanese league,” he said. “And then if he is good enough, go to the NBA.”

Lang believes Japanese basketball has improved with more coaches with NBA and Division I experience in Japan today, and if there are outstanding talents, NBA and college teams will spot them no matter where they play.

“We talk to NBA teams and colleges often about Japanese basketball,” Lang said. “There are no sleepers out there now. If you can play, the NBA and colleges will find you.”

That said, Lang suggested that Japanese players would have a better chance to develop in their native country, which may eventually open the door to the NBA.

“I would rather see Japanese kids go to college in Japan,” he said. “There are quality coaches in Japan. If the choice is D-II basketball in America or Japanese college, Japanese college is my choice.”

Editor’s note: A related story examined Watanbe’s future aspirations in May. Here’s the link: