• Kyodo

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Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe believes his Tokyo Olympics spent playing for host Japan over the summer will empower him as he approaches his fourth NBA season.

Japan went out in the group stage after losses to Spain, Slovenia and Argentina in their first Olympic appearance since 1976, with Watanabe and fellow NBA forward Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards unable to inspire the team to greater heights.

But the 26-year-old said he was just happy to get the opportunity to play for his nation amid all the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“It’s natural to have had no spectators under the current state of things. I’m grateful we were given the chance to play basketball,” Watanabe said. “I could taste the atmosphere of the Olympics and I was able to experience something truly great.”

Watanabe found plenty of positives but admitted he was hoping for a better outcome than three straight defeats.

“We went into all the games determined to win, and we had confidence too,” he said. “I was feeling how much my teammates and coaching staff had put into the games. I wanted to get one win, at least.”

“We didn’t yet have the ability to win. (But) I could see lots of potential in our team. I really felt we’ve closed the gap (on teams around the world).”

While the men struggled, Japan’s women stunned the world with an approach that made the most of their mobility and three-point shooting as they reached the final before falling to the seven-time reigning champion United States.

“I was really proud of them and moved, but there was also some frustration,” Watanabe said. “They are at a height disadvantage compared to the rest of the world like we are, but they were able to compete with that approach of theirs. It’s definitely something the men’s side can learn from. It motivated me quite a bit.”

Watanabe, who signed a standard NBA contract in April after spending more than two seasons on two-way contracts with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Raptors, said the Olympics gave him a good measure of his own skills.

“I definitely felt my scoring has improved. Scoring around 18 points on average against good opponents is a confidence booster,” he said. “I think I can take the confidence I gained with me when I resume playing with the Raptors.”

Watanabe said his time in Japan showed him areas for improvement and vowed to stake his claim in the sport’s best stage.

“I need to be able to shoot threes in various situations and make them at a high rate,” he said. “I want to polish my skills so that if opponents come out to guard me (at the arc) I can drive to the basket, and either dish off to teammates or finish on my own.”

“I’m sure the fourth season will be another tough year. Hopefully I can put my strengths on display and catch peoples’ eyes.”

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