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Yuta Watanabe reflects on successful hoop career at George Washington

by Ed Odeven

Gratitude best sums up the closing chapter of Yuta Watanabe’s college basketball career.

He shared his thoughts with the world in a Twitter message on March 10, two days after the George Washington University Colonials’ season-ending loss to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship’s second round.

“Thank you for everything the last four years. I enjoyed every single moment and I’ll definitely miss college basketball,” tweeted Watanabe, who hails from Kagawa Prefecture.

Watanabe made steady progress during his four seasons at GW. Most notably, he increased his scoring output from 7.4 points per game in the 2014-15 campaign to 8.4, 12.2 and 16.6 in the next three seasons. As a senior, he led the Colonials (15-18 overall record) in scoring, blocks (54) and 3-pointers made and was second in rebounds (6.1 per game) and steals. He further brandished his credentials as a future pro by becoming the first GW player to be named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

An article posted on the GW athletics website succinctly detailed what the 203-cm Watanabe accomplished as a top-notch defender this season. “Watanabe made a name for himself by consistently shutting down the opposition’s best player. His versatility and ability to guard four positions on the floor, from 5-foot-9 (175-cm) guards to post players, earned him repeated praise from opposing coaches throughout the season,” the article noted.

Watanabe is now gearing up for the next phase of his basketball career. He recently selected an agent and is waiting to see what his options will be.

Of course he wants to play in the NBA next season, possibly showcasing his skills during the NBA Summer League and/or in draft combines and team tryouts beforehand. But he told Hoop Scoop during a recent phone conversation that the NBA G League (formerly the NBA Development League) or Europe would be good options for him at the outset of his career.

“Yeah, definitely,” Watanabe said. “That’s what I’m thinking right now. If I can’t go to the NBA, I’m thinking to go to Europe or the G League’s fine, too. I want to play at a high level.

“I’m just really excited about my future and I’m really looking forward to taking challenges . . . and I just can’t wait to start.”

Ryan Blake, a noted NBA draft guru and son of the late, legendary league’s director of scouting Marty, confirmed last week that Watanabe is on NBA teams’ radar. There is interest in him, Blake informed me.

Watanabe was a fixture in the GW lineup over the past three seasons, starting 97 of the Colonials’ 99 games. While he was one of two Japanese men to play NCAA Division I basketball in that span — along with Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, who just completed his sophomore season — he was also an irreplaceable part of GW’s game plans.

Colonials coach Maurice Joseph reflected on Watanabe’s value to the team before the season, and his value only increased as the season progressed.

“He definitely has an increased sense of urgency,” Joseph said of Watanabe, according to an article on the GW basketball team’s website. “He knows he’s going to have to carry a bigger load offensively this year, so he’s been a lot more assertive in workouts and from what I’ve been told in pickup games, which is very refreshing to hear. He’s always been a guy that plays tough and with a sense of urgency and gives a lot on defense, but he’s taking it up a notch and has been a lot more vocal. You can tell his confidence has risen knowing he’s going to be asked to do more offensively and knowing he’s one of our leaders and this is his last hurrah.”

Indeed, Joseph’s words were prophetic.

Unforgettable home finale

Fast forward to the Colonials’ final home game of the season on Feb. 28 at Smith Center, where his parents Hideyuki and Kumi were in attendance.

The lefty shooter drained a jumper 29 seconds into the contest against Fordham, missed his next shot and sank back-to-back 3-pointers at the 15:29 and 15:02 marks. Shortly thereafter, he made three free throws, giving him 11 of GW’s first 15 points. He had 19 by halftime.

“As soon as I made the first shot, I knew I was going to play well,” Watanabe told me. “My shot felt really good and my touch was good. I missed the second shot, but the third shot and fourth shot went in, and I got free throws. I was in a really good rhythm, and my confidence went up. And I just played hard as always, and I think that’s why I played really well.”

Watanabe’s unforgettable night ended with a career-best 31 points on 11-for-17 shooting from the floor. Joseph subbed Watanabe out with 1:07 left in the game, a 72-56 victory for the Colonials. He received a standing ovation from the team’s fans. He embraced Joseph and hugged each of his teammates.

“I was really thankful that he did that,” Watanabe said of Joseph. “. . .That was a really special moment and I was really thankful to coach, thankful to my teammates and thankful to my fans.”

Afterward, Watanabe and his parents walked to Tonic, a restaurant near the gym, for a late-night dinner. He said he can’t recall what he ate, but memories of his mixed emotions that night are crystal clear.

Yes, he admitted, it was a joyful game.

“(But) I was really emotional. I was crying,” he said. “I’m not gonna lie. I was crying. . . . I was thinking about my past four years and that was a really emotional time for me.”

Watanabe proved that he had the ability to be a solid college basketball player in the United States away from his comfort zone — family, friends and the familiar surroundings of Shikoku island (he attended Jinsei Gakuen High School in Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture). But two years before landing at GW, Watanabe expressed lofty ambitions, informing his mother he wanted to pursue the next chapter of his basketball career in the U.S, according to a Mainichi Shimbun article. That summer, the newspaper reported, Hideyuki Watanabe received an unexpected phone call from Yuta Tabuse, who encouraged Yuta to follow his dreams.

“I absolute want (Yuta) to try and make it in the U.S. I think he ought to go,” the former Phoenix Suns guard told the elder Watanabe, according the Mainichi Shimbun.

Watanabe’s path to Washington, D.C., first included a year at St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Connecticut, where he began to master the English language and get adjusted to American basketball. In other words, he’s made big strides over the past five years.

Looking back on his college career, Watanabe recognizes that both Joseph and his predecessor, Mike Lonergan, were important figures in his growth as a player.

Lonergan recruited Watanabe and persuaded him to attend GW. He also gave Watanabe an appropriate role as a college freshman, making him a key backup (he averaged 22.5 minutes a game).

“I think that built my confidence a lot,” Watanabe said, “and then the next year I earned more minutes, and that built my confidence even more.”

The Colonials captured the NIT title in March 2016, beating Valparaiso at Madison Square Garden in New York. The game was a big thrill for Watanabe, who had four blocks in the marquee event. He described it as one of his “favorite memories.”

“Playing at Madison Square Garden, that’s (amazing),” Watanabe gushed. “Madison Square Garden is one of the greatest arenas in the world. I grew up watching the New York Knicks play there, and just playing there is special, but winning the tournament as well was like a really special moment.”

The university dismissed Lonergan in the offseason after the 2015-16 season for alleged emotional and verbal abuse of players. Watanabe, meanwhile, continued to grow as a team leader under Joseph.

Commitment to defense

“In my junior year, I became one of the best defenders on my team, and as the years go by my confidence gets even higher, and that’s because of my coach,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on his commitment to playing tough defense, Watanabe had this to say: “I take a lot of pride in my defense, and I think that is kind of my game, so receiving the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year (award) means a lot to me.”

I asked Watanabe if he expected to be an award candidate as a senior.

“I did,” he admitted. “That was one of my goals of this season, so yeah.”

Describing his high-energy brand of ball, Watanabe said, “I just play hard on the defensive end. For me, being a good defender is someone who plays very hard on defense and just tries hard. That’s what I did this season, and that’s why I was able to steal a lot, block a lot and rebound a lot.”

Watanabe lists Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard as favorite NBA players. He said Durant “can do everything,” adding that “it’s really fun to watch him.”

He continued this point by adding this perspective about Leonard: “For me, trying to be a good defender, he’s like a model (for me). I watch him and I try to learn from him.”

On offense, Watanabe transformed his game from an inside force around the basket in Japan while in high school to an all-around scorer, including a capable perimeter shooter. He made 56 of 154 3s (36.4 percent) this season, including 41.9 percent in A-10 games. He shot 80.7 percent at the free-throw line.

But he still has room for improvement. And he cited 3-point shooting as the aspect of his game that he wants to focus on.

“I’ve got to shoot more and over and over again and I’ve got be a consistent shooter,” said Watanabe, who exchanges text messages with Hachimura from time to time and admitted he’s excited about his talented compatriot’s future in pro ball.

Watanabe’s legacy as a player who made a lasting impact for the Colonials is significant.

That’s not all, though. He wanted — and still wants — to be an ambassador for Japanese basketball, helping to make more fans here interested in NCAA hoops while also inspiring others to follow his path to the U.S.

“Well, that’s still my hope,” Watanabe declared. “Yeah, the players who are coming to the U.S. is increasing. It’s still little, but it’s increasing. And before I came here I was hoping that I would be successful and that the younger guys who were going to follow me, that was one of my goals, too. I want to see that happen. I want to see young Japanese guys coming to D-I (teams) more in the future.”