Yuta Watanabe has only been with Japan’s Olympic squad for a few days, but he has already impressed fans in his home country with the skills he has honed in the NBA. His talent was on display during an exhibition game against Hungary, which Japan won 79-58 in Okinawa Prefecture on Wednesday.
The Toronto Raptors forward was in the starting lineup for the Akatsuki Five and did not need much time to get going. He nailed a 3-pointer and went coast-to-coast for a dunk within the first few minutes of the game, and remained active and aggressive on both ends of the floor.
“In order to give us a chance to win on the global level, I know I have to be a central player and be more responsible,” Watanabe said. “My role on this team will be very different from what I do for the Raptors.
“As for today, I think I performed well offensively, defensively and even as team captain. But I know we don’t have a lot of time until the Olympics, so I would like to focus on one day at a time.”
Watanabe scored 25 points and knocked down four 3-pointers, both game highs, while also finishing with seven rebounds and four assists.
Japan is scheduled to play two more exhibitions — against Belgium and Finland — in Okinawa. The team will still be without Rui Hachimura, another NBA player, and Yudai Baba, who are expected to join the team later.
“Needless to say, he’s an NBA player and everything he does is of the global standard,” Japan coach Julio Lamas said of Watanabe. “He’s been playing at the highest level throughout the season and he’s adapted to it. He’s playing at the top level both tactically and technically, and that’s why he is where he is now. He’s absolutely an important asset to our national team.”
Without Hachimura and Baba, who plays in Australia’s NBL, Watanabe proved he was on a different level in Wednesday’s game.
The 26-year-old has represented Japan in the past, including at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the 2016 Rio Games and 2019 FIBA World Cup. He said he did not have many problems readjusting to FIBA’s regulations and ball, which are both slightly different than in the NBA.
“I returned to Japan in early June and had the (FIBA) ball sent to my home (in Kagawa Prefecture), and there wasn’t a problem,” said the George Washington University alum, who gained a regular NBA contract during the 2020-21 campaign.
As he suggested, Watanabe played well on the court but also displayed exceptional leadership even when on the bench.
“I think I was able to show how much I’ve grown in terms of leadership today,” he said. “I sort of tried to do so intentionally, but I know when someone speaks to the players on the court from the bench like that, it helps them play better. At the Raptors, guys like Kyle (Lowry) and Fred (VanVleet) have always talked to us and I’m going to do that with the Japan national team.”
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