Encouragement, advice helped steer Watanabe to GWU

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The recent decision by promising basketball prospect Yuta Watanabe to attend George Washington University next season came as bright news for his home country.

And as much as Watanabe has rare talent, the 19-year-old out of Kagawa Prefecture has received valuable support from people around him as he tried to become a better player and eventually reach the furthest point he can.

Donald Beck, the head coach for the NBL’s Toyota Alvark, was one of the people who gave Watanabe some advice as he considered crossing the Pacific Ocean to attend preparatory school in the United States last year.

“The Watanabe family approached us and Tom Wisman, who was the national coach at that time,” said Beck, who’d coached at U.S. colleges and in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands before he signed with the Alvark in 2010. “And they were very clear that Yuta wants to go to America and the parents wanted him to go to America.”

Beck then Beck presented the Watanabes with a few options in New England, where he used to coach, including prominent prep schools. And they wound up selecting St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Connecticut. Watanabe has attended the school since September.

“So that’s all that happened. They contacted us and we did everything we could to help him fulfill his dream,” Beck said.

Now as Watanabe, a 203-cm forward, will become the third Japanese-born player to be on a NCAA Division I team later this year (and he’ll likely become the first Japanese to get a scholarship as well), he’s expected to face harder competition and challenges.

Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui, the first Japanese player to compete for an NCAA D-I school, said that it was a good choice for Watanabe to select George Washington, a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

But Matsui, a former Columbia University guard who now plays for Toyota, insisted that Watanabe would need to quickly adjust to whatever his head coach wants him to do, taking advantage of his signature plays in his new surroundings.

“There’s no guarantees that he’ll get a starting position as a freshman,” Matsui said.

Matsui said that the D-I college level is much higher than the prep school ranks and Watanabe would need to be ready for that.

“The physicality in college basketball is completely different. It’s much stronger,” Matsui said. “Defense is much different as well, and their scouting is much more thorough, so you can’t take shots as much as you would like to.”

For Matsui, it wasn’t as easy a decision to pick which college he would go to, as it may have been for Watanabe, who was reportedly torn between GW and Fordham until the last minute.

Coming out of Montrose Christian High School in Maryland (Oklahoma City Thunders star Kevin Durant went there too), Matsui had a chance to attend even more notable basketball schools, such as Davidson, Princeton, and even Michigan and North Carolina, for his sharp shooting skills.

Yet Matsui opted to attend Columbia, an Ivy League school in New York.

“I would be the first Japanese to play in Division I and I knew people would pay attention to how much I could do in it,” the 28-year-old said, recalling the experience. “Then, if I’d gone to a competitive team and couldn’t do anything there, I would’ve given an impression the Japanese players couldn’t do it there.

“That wouldn’t give other guys after me better chances. So I thought it would be better for me to be able to play for an entire year.”

Matsui congratulated Watanabe for being given the opportunity to play for a competitive college team like GW, but just making the roster should not be his goal.

“It’s good for Nabe-chan (Watanabe) to play at a competitive team, but he’s going to have to battle for playing time.”

Beck thinks that Watanabe will have success in his collegiate career and eventually has a chance to achieve his goal — to play in the NBA.

Well, the NBA talk may be a little too early for the teenager, but he had a successful prep career and was recently named to the National Prep School Invitational all-tournament team.

“To be quite honest with you, there is a great amount of young Japanese talent in Japan,” Beck said. “I think that talent is there. And I think the more exposure they get to other styles of play (and) other styles of coaching, the better they are going to be.”