Basketball / NBA

Yuta Watanabe shifts focus to upcoming NBA season

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Just over 14, 15 hours after his return from China, Yuta Watanabe was back at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Wednesday, where the Japan men’s national team had landed on its return from the FIBA World Cup the previous night.

And he was already “in an NBA mindset.”

Watanabe said he thought about staying in Japan for a few more days to rest before heading to Memphis to get ready for the upcoming NBA season. But he ultimately decided to leave sooner to be as prepared as possible for the Memphis Grizzlies’ preseason training camp.

“To be honest, I’m extremely exhausted both physically and mentally,” Watanabe admitted at the airport before his departure to the U.S. “I thought about resting for a few days in Japan. But I decided to go at this time because it would be best for me to go right now so that I would get rid of the jet lag quicker. I know I can do that perfectly after four, five days.”

This summer has been a grind for the 24-year-old. He performed well but wound up suffering a minor calf injury during the NBA Summer League in July. After that, he joined the Japan men’s national team, and then suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for about 10 days.

Then at the World Cup in China, where Watanabe helped form “Japan’s Big Three” alongside Rui Hachimura and Nick Fazekas, the squad was not able to notch a single win in its five contests.

While he described the disastrous result at the World Cup as “regrettable,” Watanabe also called this summer “exceptional” and said it gave him an irreplaceable lesson for his further growth both physically and mentally.

Players who are based overseas like Watanabe and Hachimura may not be able to don the national team jersey until next year’s Tokyo Olympics, for which Japan has been assured a spot as the host nation. But Watanabe insisted that it’s important for each player to develop in their respective leagues “on a daily basis.”

“Each and every one of us needs to train on the global standard (that we learned at the World Cup),” the Kagawa Prefecture native said. “I believe we can bring our level up to one where we can compete on par at the global level even in this one year.”

For Watanabe, the base to improve himself will be the NBA and G League, which he said is a “blessing.” Watanabe is a two-way signing, but desperately hopes to sign a legitimate NBA contract this year.

The left-handed small forward said he hasn’t lost his confidence because the World Cup and is still thrilled with getting another challenge in the NBA.

“I gained confidence playing (in the NBA and G League) throughout last season,” said Watanabe, who averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 15 games for the Grizzlies last season. “I know it’s going to be tough. But I’m ready to take on the tough challenge.”

Watanabe is also looking forward to sharing the hardwood with fellow national team forward Hachimura, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards this summer.

“I’m excited to see his performance,” he said. “I believe he has the ability to be able to play in the NBA. And when we play against the Wizards, hopefully, I’d like to be on the court, too.”

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