Having played in the United States for three years, Yuta Watanabe has shown steady development as a basketball player every year.
That means the 203-cm guard/forward has become a more valuable asset for the Japan men’s national team.
The George Washington University player was named to the 16-man provisional national team, which will aim to earn a spot in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics during next month’s final Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgrade.
The squad will be trimmed down to 12 later this month.
The biggest strength that Watanabe has is versatility for his size. This enables him to play multiple positions, both inside and outside.
“Occasionally, I’ll have to play inside a little bit, too, but I think I will have more opportunities to play at the 2 (shooting guard) and 3 (small forward) positions,” Watanabe said after the first day of the national team’s third training camp of the year at the National Training Center on Wednesday. “I mostly played at the 2 position (with the Colonials) last year, but there aren’t many players with the size I have at the position at the college level, even in the U.S.”
Japan head coach Kenji Hasegawa hopes the 21-year-old can make an impact by using his one-on-one abilities.
“He can run and defend well,” Hasegawa said. “We barely have (guard Makoto) Hiejima, who beats his opponent with his one-on-one skills. But we don’t have anyone that’s taller than 195 cm and can do it. So we’d like (Watanabe) to try to be one.”
Watanabe averaged 8.4 points and 4.0 rebounds while starting 37 games out of the 38 games he played last season for George Washington. He helped the Atlantic-10 Conference team capture its first-ever NIT championship on March 31.
Colonials head coach Mike Lonergan admitted he was pleased with Watanabe’s improvements last season.
“Yuta was a much more aggressive player his sophomore year,” Lonergan told The Japan Times in an email. “I think his hard work in the weight room gave him the confidence to take the ball to the basket and not just be a one-dimensional jump shooter. He improved in all areas of his game. His 3-point shot was a little inconsistent (30.6 percent), but his ball-handling, passing and rebounding got better and he became one of our best defenders.”
Utilizing his defensive skills, Watanabe is also expected to make contributions for the national team in that facet of the game.
Watanabe recognizes that Lonergan thinks highly of him as a defender and often asks him to guard opponents’ ace offensive players.
In fact, there were scenes during Wednesday’s training camp when Watanabe guarded the 173-cm Yuta Tabuse.
“I often guard smaller players (in the U.S.). It was especially the case toward the end of last season,” said Watanabe, who had the a team-high 40 blocks this past season. “So when our opponent’s ace player was a point guard, I’d guard him.”
Watanabe added that he has confidence to play on par with players from the other countries in Belgrade, where Japan faces the Czech Republic and Latvia in the group stage.
“It’s been a while since the last time I competed in an international tournament,” he said, when asked about going up against bigger players from Europe at the qualifier. “But I’m usually playing with the Americans, so I’m confident that I’ll do well if I’m chosen on the squad.”
Watanabe, who played for a year at St. Thomas More School in Connecticut, is dubbed as the Japanese Chosen One for his size, athleticism and phenomenal skills. But he’s not a complete basketball player yet. Although he’d help the “Akatsuki Five” in the Olympic qualifier right now, Watanabe still has room to develop into a better player.
Lonergan pointed out that the Kagawa Prefecture native needs to work on his ball-handling and post-up skills.
“Even though he plays shooting guard for us, I think it is important for him to be able to post up smaller defenders once in a while to take advantage of his height,” Lonergan said. “He needs to really focus on adding a post move to his game. It will increase his versatility and make him a better scorer. He is a very good foul shooter, and if he would go inside more to score, he would draw more fouls.”
And just like the national team expects to see improvements out of him every time he returns home, Lonergan and his Colonials hope to see Watanabe become a better player before the start of each season.
“We graduated some very good players so we need Yuta to be an even bigger part of our offense next season,” said Lonergan, whose Colonials had a 28-10 record last season. “I know he will be ready for that challenge. He is continuing to work to get stronger and tougher so teams can’t play physical with him and keep him from scoring. I love coaching Yuta and think he is going to have a great junior season.”