Basketball

Memphis Hustle rookie Yuta Watanabe shines as fill-in point guard

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Yuta Watanabe’s rookie season provided another memorable chapter on Wednesday.

In a season of steady production for the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle with some time also spent on the parent club (Memphis Grizzlies), Watanabe has been getting acclimated to the pro game at a rapid pace.

And then on Wednesday night, Watanabe started at point guard for the first time as a pro.

The move paid off in the Hustle’s down-to-the-wire, 122-119 first-round playoff victory over the host Stockton Kings.

With the victory in California, the Hustle advanced to meet the top-seeded Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Friday night in the G League’s Western Conference semifinals, a single-elimination round, in Edinburg, Texas.

Watanabe finished Wednesday’s playoff opener with 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocks in 41-plus minutes. He made 8 of 17 shots from the floor, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range. The Hustle recorded their first-ever playoff victory.

In an appearance on the “Chris Vernon Show,” Hustle coach Brad Jones summed up Watanabe’s big contributions on Wednesday.

“If Yuta doesn’t play point guard for us, I don’t think we have a chance to win,” the coach admitted on the Memphis sports podcast.

“It was a really exciting thing for everybody involved,” the coach added, summing up the win.

The fifth-seeded Hustle needed a spark and the 206-cm Watanabe, a George Washington University product, stepped up and accepted the challenge.

“With all our injuries and Jevon (Carter) being gone and Tyler Dorsey now starting for the Grizzlies, actually Jay-R Strowbridge was our only point guard left on the roster, and we’ve known that Yuta had the ball-handling and play-making capabilities all year long,” Jones said.

“And we tried to put him in that position, whether he played the small forward (spot) or the power forward (spot) for us. It was somewhat a little bit out of desperation, but we went to him yesterday morning when he got assigned (to return to the G League from the Grizzlies) and we said, ‘Listen, Yuta, do you feel comfortable doing this? I think you can be a point guard for us tonight, and if you’re good, you can give us a chance to win.’

“He was really excited about the opportunity, and he played really well at (the) point.”

Strowbridge delivered the game-winning basket, a 3-pointer with less than 2 seconds remaining.

Watanabe completed the G League regular season with appearances in 33 games (32 starts). The Kagawa Prefecture native averaged 14.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 0.9 steals per game. He’s also come off the bench in 11 games for the Grizzlies.