HOOP DREAMS: Yuta Watanabe ready to make his NBA dream a reality

HOOP HOPES — Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies, the former Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year at George Washington University, speaks to reporters in Memphis, Tennessee on Sept. 24.
Kyodo News photo

TOKYO — After scoring 18 points to help Japan beat Iran in a World Cup qualifier in Tokyo on Sept. 17, Yuta Watanabe’s mind quickly turned to the United States where he will soon be fighting to make a name for himself on basketball’s biggest stage.

The 23-year-old finished his four-year collegiate career at George Washington Unitversity with eyes for the National Basketball Association, and thankfully for fans of the sport in Japan, the interest was reciprocated when the Memphis Grizzlies picked him up and gave him the chance to be Japan’s second-ever NBA player.

“I am really excited, you know, it is going to be a challenge. I know it is going to be tough,” said Watanabe after Japan’s 70-56 win. “The NBA has been my dream since I was a kid and I am here now, so I just have to do what I have to do, and I just have to prove that I can play.”

But in the cutthroat world of the NBA absolutely nothing is guaranteed, and even more so for Watanabe who signed a so-called two-way contract, a deal that allows the Grizzlies to move him back and forth between the top team and their development G-League program, which plays in what is effectively U.S. basketball’s minor league.

Proving he can play means beating out other hungry players for playing time with the Memphis Hustle in the G-League, and if he can do that, then earning his stripes with the Grizzlies.

Tennessee’s NBA franchise is looking to bounce back from a season in which it failed to make the playoffs in the highly-competitive western conference, its two best players, center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley, missing significant time due to injury.

The team identifies itself as having a defense-first “grit and grind” mentality, and the athletic, solidly built 205-centimeter (6-foot-9) Watanabe believes that could not suit him more.

“I think I can bring my versatility, I can play the two, three, four (position), and especially on defense I can play like one through four,” said Watanabe, who in his final year at George Washington averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and just under one steal per game, stats good enough to see him named the Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year and to the all-conference third team.

Watanabe added, “Memphis is a good defensive team, so I think I am going to be a good fit. I think I can bring defense and versatility,” and with training camp kicking off on Sept. 25, he does not have long to wait before he can prove it.

With Watanabe and fellow U.S.-based Japanese star Rui Hachimura returning Stateside, the latter to Gonzaga University after putting in two high-level performances for the Akatsuki Five in this World Cup qualifying window, Japan coach Julio Lamas said he has two big holes to fill.

“If they don’t play in the next window, we try to play without them…It is the real situation, and I can’t change this,” said Lamas.

“(With them) I think we improved in this qualification and we changed the dynamic, we started (qualifying) bad, 0-4, and we changed the dynamic. Right now I am not thinking of the game against Qatar, but after this, yes, when I know if they play or not, we prepare the team to play with them or without them.”

Even if Watanabe does not return for the next round of World Cup qualifiers, he believes his recent experience in black and red has been good for both him and the Japanese team, as proved by how quickly he was able to integrate into the squad.

“I think this is the strength of the Japanese team. The team play, the Japanese team cooperates well,” he said. “So even if I joined the team last minute, everyone was very accepting from the beginning. So, from the very first day, I didn’t feel at all like I joined a new team, and I was able to integrate smoothly.”

With Japan still having a decent chance to reach the World Cup, and also looking to convince basketball’s governing body to award it a host-nation spot at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, all of Japan will be hoping that Watanabe’s smooth integration to the national team can be repeated in the NBA, allowing the young player to achieve his dream while developing into the star his country needs.

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