Japan’s Yuta Watanabe, in his third NBA season and first with the Toronto Raptors, has had his most successful run to date, playing hard every single game.

But the next two games will carry a special meaning for the 26-year-old guard/forward.

Watanabe will face the Grizzlies — for whom he competed for the last two seasons on a similar two-way contract — in Memphis on Monday. Then he will travel to Washington on Wednesday to face compatriot Rui Hachimura and the Washington Wizards.

“I really appreciate the Memphis organization for giving me the two-way contract for two years,” Watanabe said during a Zoom call Sunday. “I definitely got better as a player (during my time in Memphis). My NBA journey started here, so I’m definitely excited about the game against Memphis tomorrow.”

Watanabe also said he can’t wait to share the court with Hachimura, who is in his second year playing in the NBA. The two teams played head-to-head twice last season, but Watanabe is even more excited about his reunion with the Wizards’ star forward this time around.

“In both games against the Wizards, the minutes we were on the court were limited because I wasn’t given a lot of playing time last year,” Watanabe said. “I’ve wanted to face him after getting more minutes, so I’m looking forward to stepping onto the court (with Hachimura) as a member of the Raptors, and it’ll be a fun time.”

Watanabe’s hard work has paid off this year and he has earned a spot in the Raptors’ rotation. The 206-centimeter player has averaged 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in 11.6 minutes for the Eastern Conference team, which has notched a 10-13 record in the 2020-21 season. He has improved his 3-point shooting skills, making 42.9% of his shots from outside of the arc as well.

Yuta Watanabe of the Toronto Raptors drives past a defender during a game against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 26. | NBAE / GETTY IMAGES / VIA KYODO
Yuta Watanabe of the Toronto Raptors drives past a defender during a game against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 26. | NBAE / GETTY IMAGES / VIA KYODO

While he struggled to earn minutes on the floor when he was with the Grizzlies, Watanabe insisted that he would not be where he is right now without the tough yet valuable seasons in Tennessee.

“I’ve developed as a player because of the two years in Memphis, there’s no question about that,” said Watanabe, who signed with the Grizzlies as an undrafted free agent out of George Washington University. “I was given the two-way contract when I came out of college. I spent a lot of time in the G League, but the frustrations that I had in Memphis in these two years have led me to where I am right now. I never thought my time in Memphis was a waste.”

And Watanabe feels fortunate to have come to the Raptors, who are based in Tampa this season due to the pandemic, because he feels that he has fit into the team’s style of play, absorbing the “winning mentality” from the franchise’s 2018-19 championship run.

“The Raptors have maintained their positions up in the standings in recent years, and they even won the championship two years ago,” said Watanabe, adding that his main roles are in defense and making wide-open 3-pointers. “So I’ve thought this team has the winning mentality. Everybody is striving to win and I’ve felt that through our practices and games.”

Meanwhile, Watanabe will keep himself busy even after the conclusion of the season, when he will return to Japan to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan’s national team recently learned it will be grouped with Spain, Argentina and an unknown nation that will be decided later in the preliminary round.

The Kagawa Prefecture native said that it would “mean a lot” if the games go ahead despite the pandemic and that it would be “awesome” to play before his family and friends.

Two years ago, the Akatsuki Five headed into the FIBA World Cup in China being advertised as the best-ever Japanese squad, with Watanabe and Hachimura on the roster. But in the end, the team left with a bitter taste in its mouth, exiting with a humiliating 0-5 record.

“I was so frustrated with the five consecutive losses, and it made us all think there are so many gaps between Japan and the rest of the world,” Watanabe said. “I mean, whether we had the World Cup or not, I would’ve worked as hard anyway. But those five games were what made me think that I’ve got to be a better player to lead the Japan national team to wins and have led me to the development I’ve made.”

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