Basketball fans in Japan had a chance to celebrate one of their own on Monday night after the Toronto Raptors announced their signing of Yuta Watanabe to a standard NBA contract.

Because the NBA has eliminated the 50-game limit for two-way players during this season, many thought that the 26-year-old would not get a chance to be promoted to a regular signing before the end of the campaign.

But Eric Koreen, the lead Raptors writer for The Athletic, said that the move has made “more and more sense” over the last two weeks.

The 206-centimeter guard/forward has been experiencing his best NBA season this year, averaging 4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He’s played even better in recent weeks, notching 8.7 points per game since the beginning of April. He posted a career-high 21 points against the Orlando Magic on Friday.

“He has played very well over these weeks, showing notable signs of improvement in the areas they have been monitoring, particularly with both his aggressiveness and decisiveness on offense,” Koreen told The Japan Times via email.

Nikki Reyes, a co-host of a Raptors show for TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto, thinks that Watanabe’s signing might have taken place sooner had the season not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the signing shows that the Raptors organization is not only good at spotting talent, but developing it,” Reyes said. “But of course, all the credit must be given to Yuta for his hard work. He’s taken the coaching and advice he has been given and shown growth to his game each and every day, which explains why his hard work was rewarded.”

Both Koreen and Reyes said that Watanabe has competed with more of a warrior-like mindset than he showed earlier in the season, which is part of the reason behind the team’s decision to offer a regular contract.

“At first he showed flashes of being just a perimeter threat with his beautiful 3-point shooting, but appeared passive at times — instead of taking the shot he would often pass the ball,” Reyes said. “(Raptors head coach) Nick Nurse used to joke that he was too unselfish and too much of a team player and encouraged Yuta to shoot more, be more aggressive. He’s definitely taken that advice and we’re seeing him now not only shoot more often, but he’s added a variety of shots to his repertoire including that aggressiveness driving to the basket. The confidence appears to be growing each and every game.”

Koreen said: “He has four double-digit scoring games in the past six games, but it is more than that: It is a willingness to attack to the rim when defenders put pressure on him, and an improved ability to either finish or find a teammate when he gets into the paint.”

Koreen added that Kyle Lowry “has frequently mentioned” Watanabe’s hard work, which makes him “a likable figure in the locker room.”

“There is never any risk of his ego becoming a problem, either,” Koreen said of Watanabe.

With the Raptors temporarily based in Tampa, Florida, due to travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the team’s Toronto-based reporters have been limited to online interviews with players and staffers. But both Koreen and Reyes said that the Kagawa Prefecture native has been embraced fondly by both the fans and media in addition to his teammates.

“Anecdotally, fans seem to really enjoy the effort with which he plays,” Koreen said. “Even when he was dunked on by Anthony Edwards of Minnesota (Timberwolves), his willingness to try to make an aggressive defensive play earned him some fans. You can never question his effort, and combine that with his intelligence and selflessness, and these are the making of the fan favorite.”

Reyes said: “We haven’t been able to really get to know him, but for now, his game does all the talking and we definitely appreciate that.”

Assuming the Raptors will be back in Toronto next season, the two reporters are looking forward to how Watanabe will be welcomed in the city, which is known for its diversity.

“The Japanese community (and Asian community more broadly) should have the opportunity to embrace him,” Koreen said. “This has happened frequently with international players, including the Lithuanian community with Jonas Valanciunas and the Turkish community with Hedo Turkoglu, although the good feelings did not last long.”

Reyes said that there is “definitely a sense of pride” in observing Watanabe on the team.

“Seeing is believing, and his story will definitely inspire a generation of kids, not just in Toronto, but around the world.”

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