This season was undoubtedly the most special of forward Yuta Watanabe’s three-year career after he earned a regular contract with the Toronto Raptors in late April.
But the 26-year-old knows he’ll have no time to rest on his laurels if he wants to secure a spot on next season’s roster as well.
“I was able to receive a regular contract later in the season, which was one of the things that I’d wanted to accomplish,” Watanabe told Japanese media representatives in an online news conference Friday, a few days after Toronto wrapped up its season. “But it’s just a waypoint for me. I can’t relax because I haven’t been given any guarantees for next year. I think I need to continue to battle.”
One of the major factors that helped Watanabe convert his two-way player contract into a regular deal was the relentless warrior mentality he displayed on the court.
Reflecting on the 2020-21 campaign, which was the final season in which he was eligible to compete as a two-way signing, Watanabe insisted that his attitude of constant preparedness paid off.
“I was hardly getting minutes on the court earlier in the season,” Watanabe said. “But I was eventually going to get them as the season wore on and that was because I’ve always been ready to go. Whether or not I was involved in the rotation, I’ve tried to get myself ready to play at any time. When I was playing in the G League or with the (Memphis) Grizzlies, I would study film so I was mentally ready, and that wasn’t different this year.
“I guess there were technical things that I probably needed to improve in my first two years. I thought that way when I wasn’t getting playing time. But I feel like I was finally able to play in the NBA. I think all of my preparations and my efforts during the offseasons have paid off.”
Watanabe acknowledges that there are areas where he needs to improve in order to be a legitimate NBA regular.
While he does not consider himself a player who scores “20, 30 points any given day,” Watanabe believes that he’ll need to maintain his warrior mindset in order to stay in the world’s top basketball league.
The 206-cm Kagawa Prefecture native made notable growth in his 3-point shooting, coming up with 40% from behind the arc — reaching the goal he had set for himself for this season. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said that he wants Watanabe to transform into more of a “scary” shooter for Toronto going forward.
“In order for me to survive in this league, it won’t be possible to do so with only my defensive ability and hustles,” said Watanabe, who averaged 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds in 50 games for the Eastern Conference team this year. “And while we have players who are capable, Coach Nurse says he wants me to be a scary shooter and I’ll be able to prove myself as an aggressive player if I keep shooting. It will be easier to play my own style because that’s also what the team and the coach want to see from me.
Watanabe referred to an April 16 game against the Orlando Magic as one of the contests where he felt he was able to display his relentlessness.
“I had my career-high (21 points) and really went aggressively,” said the George Washington University alum, who along with Washington Wizards star Rui Hachimura is expected to highlight Japan’s squad at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. “As I got on a roll, my teammates told me that I should go attack and provided me with more passes.”
Watanabe, the 2018 Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year, has met one of his major objectives by signing a regular NBA contract. His other is to win the championship.
“When the Raptors kept me this season, the team was aiming at the championship and it was the same for me,” Watanabe said. “We struggled to win this year but my aim of winning a championship won’t change. I’ll be working from the beginning of the season to get a ring.”
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