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Yuta Watanabe makes good impression in Summer League stint with Nets

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Yuta Watanabe attracted positive attention during the Brooklyn Nets’ five NBA Summer League Games in Las Vegas earlier this month.

The prospective NBA player, who wrapped up his four years at George Washington University in the spring, showcased his 3-point shooting ability, defensive versatility, shot-blocking skills and energy in a memorable stretch of eight days.

Above all, the 23-year-old Watanabe aimed to prove he belongs while competing against others with the same goal: to be an NBA employee.

“I don’t want to be an NBA player because I’m Japanese,” he told reporters in Las Vegas. “I want to be an NBA player because I’m a basketball player. Just like everybody else.”

Speaking to The Washington Post while in Las Vegas, Watanabe admitted he was taking one important step en route to his ultimate destination.

“It’s great. It’s great for me,” he told The Washington Post, referring to the Summer League. “Great experience, but it’s still Summer League. I still have a lot to go, so my goal is not here.”

Here’s a look back at the 206-cm forward’s solid numbers in Vegas, where the Nets went 0-5:

July 6 — 21 minutes, eight points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks (against the Orlando Magic)

July 7 — 27 minutes, 13 points, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals (versus the Oklahoma City Thunder)

July 9 — 26 minutes, 14 points (tying for the game-high total; the total included eight points in a 16-0 Brooklyn run in the opening half), making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, four rebounds, two blocks and one assist (against the Minnesota Timberwolves)

July 11 — 26 minutes, four points, seven rebounds and one steal (versus the Houston Rockets)

July 13 — 18 minutes, eight points, three assists and one steal (against the Indiana Pacers)

To recap, in Las Vegas, the 2017-18 Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 blocks in 24 minutes a game.

In other words, he was productive.

“This is really important,” Watanabe said, according to the New York Post on July 9. “Obviously I didn’t get drafted. I know a lot of Japanese fans wanted me to get drafted. But I’ve always been the same . . . getting drafted wasn’t important for me, but this is and training camp are really important.

“I’m focused on right here and now, and that’s why I’m playing like this.”

The introduction of the two-way contract before last season enhances Watanabe’s chances of seeing time in the NBA in the near future.

Under the current system, NBA rosters have expanded to 17 (two more than the previous maximum number) with the addition of two “two-way players.” League rules stipulate these players can be on the NBA roster for up to 45 days and spend the rest of the season on the team’s G. League squad.

NBA scouting director Ryan Blake confirmed that he expects the Kagawa Prefecture native to be in the mix for an NBA job in the upcoming season.

“He has an upside, strengths on both ends of the floor and interest (from teams),” Blake told The Japan Times. “There is a lot of competition for spots but he should be on a training camp roster. If he doesn’t get a two-way (contract), he should invest in his game and opportunity by playing in the G League.”

Nets assistant coach Jacque Vaughn, who served as bench boss for the team’s Summer League games, told reporters in Las Vegas that Watanabe’s performance was noteworthy.

“He has probably been our most consistent player, practices and games included. I give him credit for that,” Vaughn said after the Nets’ third loss in the casino-filled metropolis on July 11, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Added Vaughn: “The effort that he’s given on the defensive end of the floor (has been impressive), too. So it’s a combination of making the right play offensively, being unselfish and then laying his body on the line defensively.”

While analyzing Watanabe’s aspirations, Vaughn, a former University of Kansas standout and NBA guard, highlighted the international growth of the game.

“He shows where our game is going. The global impact of it,” Vaughn was quoted as saying by the Las Vegas Review Journal. “I love seeing it. It’s different. The game is reaching different parts of the world and it’s a plus of what’s to come.”

A reminder of what’s already occurred: Japanese-American guard Wataru “Wat” Misaka appeared in three games for the New York Knicks in the 1947-48 season. He was the first non-Caucasian in the Basketball Association of America (one of the NBA’s predecessors). Then, in 2004, guard Yuta Tabuse, who’s still a household name as a Tochigi Brex floor leader, played in four regular-season games for the Phoenix Suns, becoming the first Japanese-born NBA player.

Watanabe, of course, seeks to have a lengthier NBA career than Misaka and Tabuse and help expand Japan’s rooting interests at a time when the sport’s global reach is huge. (Last season, 108 international players were on opening-day rosters from a record 42 countries and territories.)