Yuta Watanabe made a heroic return to his home country during a recent trip by the George Washington University basketball team.
During their stay in Japan, the Colonials played three exhibitions against a downgraded Japanese national team and one against the Ryukyu Golden Kings of the professional B. League, and the NCAA team won all four games.
“We got to play in such a great arena like this in front of a great audience against a great opponent,” Watanabe said after a 77-71 win in the second game at sumo capital Ryogoku Kokugikan on Aug. 16. “I’m thankful for the people who made it happen, including our university officials.”
Watanabe, a 21-year-old junior guard, didn’t disappoint local fans with his performance. The Kagawa Prefecture native averaged 14.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks, and showed off some slam dunks to lead the GW squad in those wins.
But it isn’t just Japanese fans who have high expectations for Watanabe. George Washington head coach Mike Lonergan and his staff also expect the Japanese player to step up and become one of the main guys for the team on a daily basis in the upcoming season.
For the 2016-17 season, the Atlantic 10 Conference team will have a young squad as most of their core players graduated after last season, during which the team captured its first NIT title. The Colonials will have only four upperclassmen, including Watanabe who had 8.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game last year.
“This year, because we have graduated six of our top eight players, we will have to rely on these two guys in Tyler and Yuta,” Lonergan said, referring the Japanese star and graduate student forward Tyler Cavanaugh. “Both these guys are going to have to do this (replicate their good performance in the Tokyo game) every night for us during the college season for us to be successful again.”
The team’s leading scorer during the 2015-16 season, Cavanaugh led the Tokyo game with 23 points.
Lonergan recalled that Watanabe was a good shooter for him in his freshman year but wasn’t as consistent the next season. He added that physically the player wasn’t strong enough and would “end up on the ground” when his body was banged by another player.
Lonergan stressed, however, that Watanabe was going to “make the jump for us to be really successful.”
“He has all the tools,” Lonergan said of Watanabe. “I think his toughness has increased from playing with the national team this summer (during Olympic qualifying in Serbia). And also, as he gets older, working out, lifting weights and things.
“He’s become tougher. Maybe before (last season), when he took a hit, he ended up on the ground a lot. Now he’s finishing plays and getting to the basketball. He’s a really good free throw shooter, so we want him to get to the free throw line.”
Maybe too often, a basketball player is judged by his or her scoring ability. But Lonergan insists Watanabe will help the team with his all-around skills, including his defense, even if he doesn’t score well.
“A lot of guys can score, but they don’t want to play defense,” Lonergan said. “And last year, at the end of the year, (Watanabe) was guarding the best offensive player on the other team.
“He took pride in his defense and carried it over for the rest of the year, and hopefully, he’ll carry it over into our upcoming season as well.”
Cavanaugh, who’s seen Watanabe since the Japanese’s freshman year, said Watanabe would “make the big jump this year.”
“If he’s not an all-conference player, I’d be disappointed,” Cavanaugh said. “Because I think he’ll be (in) the first or second team. He’s a great player, great kid, great family. He works hard and has all the assets to be an NBA player.”
Watanabe also seems to have the intangibles, showing some leadership and relaying his coach’s instructions to the players on the floor during the Tokyo game.
Watanabe seems to understand its part of his role as one of the older players.
“As coach said, many of our core players graduated after last year,” Watanabe said. “Until last year, I was just following those players. But I’m a junior and we have so many freshmen this year, so I will have to be a leader and will have to voluntarily do that kind of leader-type role to convey instructions from the bench.”
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