Known in Japan as ‘The Chosen One’, Watanabe is the second Japanese-born player — and one of only a handful of Asian players — to ever make an NBA team.
Following in the footsteps of countryman Yuta Tabuse, who played four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004, Watanabe will make his debut for the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2018-2019 NBA season.
The lanky 6-foot-9-inch forward hails from a tiny town in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. Born into a family steeped in basketball tradition (both of his parents played professionally in Japan), Watanabe naturally fell in love with the sport at an early age. Speaking to The Washington Post, he even admits to being a fan of the classic basketball manga, “Slam Dunk.”
After a standout high school career at Jinsei Gakuen High School and then St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Oakdale, Connecticut, Japanese media was quick to tout him as a national phenom.
His talents led him to receiving a Division I scholarship to play for George Washington University, where he gradually improved his contributions on the court over his four-year tenure.
In his senior campaign (2017-2018), Watanabe averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocks per game (per Sports Reference) en route to winning the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year award.
His success catapulted him to stardom in Japan, a country which has never experienced basketball success on such a scale. His celebrity status was such that, during a George Washington team trip to Japan, a lady literally “threw her baby at him while mired in a Yuta fan mob” just so that she could get a picture with him, according to GW Magazine.
“It was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Watanabe’s coach, Maurice Joseph.
Back at George Washington, they referred to the craze as Yutamania, likening it to Beatlemania.
Yutamania, unfortunately, failed to transpire at the next level. Watanabe declared for the 2018 NBA Draft but was not selected.
Not to be dissuaded, the recently-turned 24-year-old continued to work out for NBA teams and was eventually invited to play for the Brooklyn Nets at the Las Vegas Summer League, an annual pre-season tournament featuring only rookies, second-year players and un-drafted invitees. Given another opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream, Watanabe made the most of it.
Despite the Nets losing all five games in the tournament, Watanabe thoroughly impressed fans and players alike, averaging 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 blocks in only 24 minutes of action per game, according to The Japan Times.
His play was so good, in fact, that then-Net and fellow Asian basketball star Jeremy Lin commended him personally. Speaking to CTGN, Lin was reported saying, “He did a good job and he’s one of the best three players [on the Nets] in this year’s Summer League.”
It is of particular interest to note that Lin, who himself went un-drafted in 2010, similarly impressed during his following stint in Summer League, which earned him a contract with the Golden State Warriors.
In a repeat of Asian basketball history, Watanabe was offered a two-way contract by the Memphis Grizzlies on July 20, 2018, shortly after Summer League.
— Yuta Watanabe 渡邊 雄太 (@wacchi1013) September 25, 2018
“Thank you all who have been supporting me. I’m so excited this opportunity but this is just the beginning. I’ll keep working hard,” Watanabe wrote via Instagram.
True to his word, Watanabe’s hard work shone through during the NBA pre-season, where he hit a miraculous buzzer-beating three-pointer, sending the game to overtime:
— NBA (@NBA) October 7, 2018
Under the new structuring of the NBA roster system, teams are allowed to sign a total of 17 players (expanded from 15), with room for up to two “two-way players”. Two-way contracts designate the player to spend most of their time with the team’s G-League affiliate (a developmental team attached to every NBA team) and allow up to 45 days with the actual NBA team.
This means Watanabe will spend the majority of the 2018-2019 season with the G-League’s Memphis Hustle, where he will undoubtedly continue to improve his skills until he is ready for a full-time position with the Grizzlies.
At 6-foot-9 with a wingspan of 6-foot-10, Watanabe possesses an NBA-ready body, and the athleticism to boot: at an NBA draft camp, Watanabe measured a max vertical leap of 36.5 inches, tying him for 6th best in a group of 30. Add to this a solid three-point jump shot and a tenacious talent for shot-blocking on defense and it’s clear to see why Watanabe has carried the hopes of a nation on his back since he was a mere teenager.
“My strength is my versatility, both offensively and defensively. I can dribble, I can shoot, I can pass. On the offensive end, I can guard 1-4,” he said to reporters after a workout with the Pacers (via The Japan Times).
Oh, did we mention he can dance too?
I feel like Yuta Watanabe (@wacchi1013) won his team over with this one.
The Memphis Grizzlies rookie was swarmed by teammates after putting a Memphis spin on the “In My Feelings’ Challenge. Full video of the Grizz rookies dancing here: https://t.co/Fevr4bQqzT pic.twitter.com/cDICGzyBQy
— Sudu Upadhyay (@SuduUpadhyay) September 29, 2018
As the 2018-2019 NBA season is underway, Watanabe knows there’s a tremendous amount of expectation from fans back home.
It’s a feeling Asian NBA players know too well.
Beginning with Yao, then Lin, and now Zhou Qi and Watanabe, being Asian in the NBA has always been about much more than just playing basketball; it’s about carrying the torch of representation.
“This kind of attention stuff, this kind of stuff (is) more of a challenge because a lot of Chinese people are behind (me),” Zhou, a now-second year Chinese player with the Houston Rockets, was reported as saying through an interpreter to the Houston Chronicle.
Similarly, in an email written to The Washington Post, a Japanese fan proclaimed, “Yuta is a generational talent who could connect multi-generations of fans in Japan. Combined with the first wave of fans like me and my colleagues, . . . new teen fans and even our children, the basketball fan base in Japan would get bigger when Yuta becomes the second Japanese NBA player.”
But according to The Washington Post, Watanabe doesn’t feel the pressure.
“I just want to keep working hard. I just want to keep improving myself. And I just want to prove people that I can play in the real game,” he said.
If his explosive pre-season performance is anything to go by, it seems Watanabe is more than ready for the real game.