Basketball | HOOP SCOOP

Yuta Watanabe makes positive impact as a rookie

by Ed Odeven

Yuta Watanabe’s blue-collar work ethic and perpetual desire to improve were defining characteristics of his rookie season.

Playing for the Memphis Grizzlies and the team’s NBA G League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle, Watanabe made positive impressions throughout the long season.

The bulk of his playing time came with the Hustle due to his two-way contract. Per rules of NBA two-way deals that began in the 2017-18 campaign, a player can spend up to 45 days on an NBA roster, with the rest of the season with a G League club.

Watanabe appeared in 33 games for the Hustle, making 32 starts. He scored 14.2 points per game, while posting averages of 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 steals. In other words, he was active in all phases of the game.

The 206-cm small forward, who also spent time in the backcourt, also played in 15 Grizzlies games, averaging 11.6 minutes, 2.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists. The Kagawa Prefecture native shot 29.4 percent from the floor in those games, and Watanabe admitted he has immediate targets for improvement before next season tips off.

“In the offseason I’ll work on my shooting, so I don’t miss any makable shots,” Watanabe was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after the Grizzlies’ final regular-season game against the Golden State Warriors on April 10 in Memphis. “My goal is to be on a full NBA roster (next season).”

The Grizzlies, who went 33-49, missed the playoffs and fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff, while reassigning general manager Chris Wallace to a scouting position. It’s unclear right now if their revamped management team will seek to keep Watanabe under a two-way deal for one more year, offer him a regular NBA contract or part ways with him. In essence, Watanabe and others on two-ways deals occupy the final NBA roster spots, Nos. 16 and 17.

Watanabe has greater ambitions, and knows there are no shortcuts to make it happen.

“It’s important to strengthen my body while also improving my shot. Shooting and defense are how I’ll make my living, so those are the areas I really have to work on,” the George Washington University alum was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

Pete Pranica, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Grizzlies, noted that Watanabe made quick adjustments as a rookie.

“What was most impressive about Yuta were his defensive instincts and how he played the game so smoothly and effortlessly,” Pranica told Hoop Scoop on Tuesday. “Sometimes young players can be a bit mechanical, but he was smooth on both ends of the floor. Yuta is a very bright guy and so he not only took coaching very well, but rarely made the same mistake twice after having been coached on it. I think his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached are his greatest assets.”

Pranica went on: “He is very skilled for a ‘big man’ and played some point guard during the G League playoffs out of necessity and was impressive in that role. He is more of a wing player than a post player. As such, he will need a more reliable outside shot. Also, he needs to get physically bigger and stronger so that he is not overmatched in the post when in that situation.”

Indeed, Watanabe’s hunger for bigger, better things is the driving force of his approach to the game.

“I’m obviously not satisfied with how this season went,” he said, according to Kyodo News, “but I’m still proud of finishing the season as an NBA player.”

Memphis-based sportswriter Brandon Abraham closely follows the Grizzlies and Hustle for SB Nation’s Grizzly Bear Blues website. He saw Watanabe on the court throughout the season for both teams, watching an estimated 35 total games along the way.

In an interview with Hoop Scoop, Abraham was asked to offer his general impressions of Watanabe’s rookie season, particularly what impressed him and how he made adjustments.

“The most impressive thing about Yuta’s play was his ability to always have a positive impact on the game,” Abraham told me. “Yuta didn’t always have high scoring games, but if he wasn’t scoring he was playing great defense, passing the ball and grabbing rebounds. The Grizzlies and Hustle were simply better with Yuta on the court.

“The most promising thing about Yuta’s progress is his ability to learn quickly. Yuta adapted very well to what was a busy season for him going between the Hustle and Grizzlies. His shot, and confidence, improved as the year moved on. I think in his first year Yuta learned how to be a professional basketball player.

“Playing basketball is one thing, but handling the media and pressures of being an NBA player was something new to him that he learned a lot how to react to certain things over the year. Yuta reacted very positively to the coaching from both Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff and Hustle coach Brad Jones.

“Yuta has a very open mind and is always willing to learn and take advice from his coaches. He isn’t stubborn and doesn’t act like he’s too good for anyone. He’s a very coachable player and I think that helped him improve as the season went on.”

Retired big man Antoine Broxsie, who suited up for the Saitama Broncos, Takamatsu Five Arrows and Chiba Jets during the bj-league era, completed his first season as a Hustle assistant coach in April.

Broxsie raved about Watanabe’s versatility in an exclusive interview.

“We played him at every position on the court outside of being the coach,” Broxsie told Hoop Scoop. “And what was most impressive was that he knew all the plays from each position on the court that he played, which also shows his maturity and his basketball IQ. Which is very promising.”

All coaches want to see their players grasp the team’s offensive and defensive concepts, but in pro sports the social aspect of the job also plays a part for teams.

“What he learned the most, I believe, is the things you can’t teach,” Broxsie said of Watanabe. “I think he really bonded with the American players and coaches. I mean, think about it. Americans come to Japan and you have two or three Americans (on your team) to speak your language with. But for Yuta, it was completely opposite. He was the only Japanese on the team, and granted he played college here in the (United) States, it was his first year as a pro, which shows how much he really learned. Which is how to be a pro.”

Broxsie admitted that it was a pleasant experience working with Watanabe during his rookie season because of “his willingness to be . . . the best version of himself.”

“He is open to learning and he is open to change,” Broxsie concluded, “which says a lot to his maturation and to what Yuta is becoming.”