A few days after wrapping up his second G League/NBA season, Yuta Watanabe, who is signed to a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, reflected on the 2019-20 season with mixed feelings in an online group interview with Japanese reporters on Wednesday.
The 25-year-old described the 2019-20 season as a campaign where he grew to a degree. Watanabe played in 15 NBA games, averaging 2.6 points and 1.8 rebounds while also shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range. He made improvements in each of those areas when compared to his rookie season in 2018-19.
He’s already proven himself at the G League level. This season, Watanabe put up 17.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, two more areas where he improved over last year.
“It was a season that made me feel I’ve improved a lot and just looking at my numbers, they went up this year both in the G League and NBA. I got reassurance that I could play at the highest level,” said Watanabe, whose Grizzlies missed out on a playoff berth with a 126-122 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in their play-in game on Saturday in Florida.
But overall, Watanabe’s frustration exceeds his satisfaction.
“I think I gave performances I have no complaints about in the G League,” Watanabe said. “But in the NBA, I felt like I had things I didn’t do well enough. I set a goal to earna legitimate NBA contract entering the season but ended up not meeting it. The coronavirus hit us, too, and it was a year that left me very frustrated.”
Among the areas where he’s improved, Watanabe said his 3-point shooting stands out. That was especially the case in the G League, in which he nailed 36.4 percent of his shots from deep in 2019-20.
“I played in more minutes in the G League, so I had more chances to get in sync with my teammates. While our guards players drove in, I found space to make shots,” he said of his 3-point shooting. “It’s made me take easier shots, and helped improve the percentage. I also improved technically, so I could make some tough shots, too. But overall, it was huge for me to be able to take good shots more easily.”
Watanabe thinks he needs to do that on a more consistent basis on the NBA level in order to earn more trust from the coaches and stay on the court longer. He said he needs to play the way he does in the G League in the NBA.
“I wanted to make my shots at a higher percentage in terms of my 3-point shooting,” the 203-cm player said. “Also, I think I played more comfortably than in the previous year, but I am still kind of on my toes when I play in the NBA. Obviously, the level is higher there than in the G League, but I still feel like I could’ve done better here and there. So this season left me with a bitter taste in my mouth from a mental standpoint as well.”
It wasn’t easy for Watanabe to get minutes in the NBA on a Grizzlies squad loaded with young talent like Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke.
But Watanabe is determined to keep doing what he can do and playing his role.
“I have to keep working on what I can do in order to get in the rotation,” said Watanabe, who has been inspired by Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz. “I let other players do those flashy plays, and I have to do other stuff like rebounding and chasing loose balls. If I pursued those (flashy plays) in the NBA, it would sort of be like suicide for me, it would diminish my game. I don’t necessarily believe that teams loaded with superstars are competitive. Teams have to have players who can do the dirty work and that gives them better balance.”
Watanabe stressed that he believes he belongs to the NBA and thinks he needs to keep making his case by doing the small things when he gets his chances, such as in practice or during garbage time in games.
“I felt I had to improve more during the offseason,” said Watanabe, who concluded his final season on his two-year two-way contract with Memphis. “Otherwise, I’d not get a legitimate contract with the status quo.”
Speaking of the offseason, Watanabe is undecided about returning to Japan, since there won’t be much time off before next season’s training camp period. The 2020-21 campaign is expected to tip off in December. Plus, if he were to visit Japan, he might have to spend some time in quarantine.
“That worries me,” the Kagawa Prefecture native said of the potential quarantine. “It’d be too tough for me to not be able to practice basketball. I was already in a position where I could not practice at a gym from March until mid-May or so (because of the lockdown). So I would like to make plans while thinking about what I would do going forward.”
Watanabe is expected be one of the core attractions for the Japan men’s national team at the Tokyo Olympics. He completely understands why the games have been postponed given the circumstances with the coronavirus and feels safety and health should be prioritized. He is, however, ready to don the Akatsuki Five jersey on the global stage.
“We don’t even know if the games will be held as scheduled next year,” he said. “Obviously, I want to play in it. Health and stuff like that should be secured more than anything. But if the Tokyo Olympics will be held, I definitely want to be part of it. But if not, I can understand that, too.”