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Yuta Watanabe giving Raptors’ struggling second unit a much-needed boost

·Raptors Writer
·9-min read

For someone that averages just 6.1 points, 1.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe exemplifies how impact can go far beyond the box score.

The 27-year-old Japanese international is arguably the most important player coming off the Raptors’ bench these days, impacting the game in so many different ways with his rebounding, controlled closeouts, crisp rotations, three-point shooting, and developing passing skills.

Considering the Raptors have the worst bench in the league right now and have been hit with injuries to three of their key front-court players in OG Anunoby, Khem Birch, and Precious Achiuwa, Watanabe’s presence is more important than it ever has been in his short NBA career.

Yuta Watanabe has been a breath of fresh air for the Raptors' bench unit. (Getty)
Yuta Watanabe has been a breath of fresh air for the Raptors' bench unit. (Getty)

Nicknamed “The Chosen One” after he started playing with Japan’s senior national team at just 16 and was the first Japanese player to ever receive a Division I basketball scholarship (before Washington Wizards' Rui Hachimura), Watanabe attended George Washington University for four years before going undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Memphis Grizzlies signed Watanabe to a two-way contract, where he played primarily for their G League team and suited up for the Grizzlies 33 times between 2018 and 2020.

The Raptors then signed Watanabe to an Exhibit 10 contract in 2020-21, inviting him to training camp where he impressed enough to beat out Canadian Oshae Brissett for a two-way contract. That was ultimately converted into a regular NBA contract midway through the Raptors' 2020-21 season in Tampa, Fla., after Watanabe played in 50 of the Raptors’ 72 games with several starters missing time due to injuries and COVID-19.

“The Chosen One” then got to represent his country in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics this past summer, playing a key role for the Japanese national team and averaging 17.3 points, 2.0 assists, along with a team-high 8.0 rebounds along with 1.7 steals and 1.0 block per game.

It was an opportunity for Watanabe to spread his wings and see what he could do with an extended leash. The added confidence and scoring aggression were immediately visible in preseason with the Raptors, where he looked like a different player than the one whom coaches and teammates were constantly encouraging to stop passing up open shots a season before. While Watanabe took 9.0 field goals per 36 minutes with the Raptors, he attempted 14.1 in Tokyo.

“I played a totally different role than with the Raptors. I was one of the go-to guys. I had to defend their best player. I had to go rebound. I had to do everything,” Watanabe said about Team Japan. “I can definitely bring that experience to the Raptors. I know when I go back to the Raptors my role might decrease, but still, I can use that experience going forward.”

Watanabe suffered a calf injury during a training-camp practice and went on to miss the first 18 games of the Raptors 2021-22 season. He returned on Nov. 24th and has slowly improved his conditioning and rhythm with each game, averaging 26.4 minutes over the last two contests as the first player off the bench for the Raptors’ second unit — which has struggled to move and score the ball this season, with the second-worst assist rate (12.5 percent), worst three-point percentage (27.0), and the fewest points per game (24.1) of all benches in the league.

But that’s not Watanabe’s fault.

His net rating of -0.4 doesn’t look all that impressive at first sight, but considering that the majority of his minutes have come alongside several other members of the bench, including Malachi Flynn (-18.9), Dalano Banton (-5.6), Svi Mykhailiuk (-7.1), and Chris Boucher (-0.9), it’s meaningful that he has played his minutes evenly. He seamlessly slots into virtually any lineup — whether alongside the starters or the bench — and helps on both sides of the ball.

“We really need him," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Watanabe. "As of right now, the way our team is, he's the first sub off the bench and he can come really at any position ... and that's really helpful for us, for him to come in and be able to be a solid defender at the three, four, or five and ... to contribute to the offence as well,” 

Offensively, Watanabe is shooting 34.3 percent from three on a career-high 3.9 attempts per game, effectively spacing the floor for his teammates as he cuts and relocates himself for open looks, which he is finally taking without hesitation. After shooting 40.0 percent from three on 1.8 attempts last season, Watanabe has established himself as a shooter and should see his percentage climb as he gets his legs back under him. But the volume matters just as much as the percentages, and it’s encouraging that Watanabe is taking 7.3 three-point attempts and 10.4 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared to just 4.5 and 9.0 last season.

“He just looks a lot more assertive and aggressive when he’s out there. I’m certainly going to stay on him to be aggressive. That’s the only chance he has,” teammate Fred VanVleet said of Watanabe. “He can be a good piece for us if he can continue to grow and be aggressive.”

Watanabe is also much more confident putting the ball on the floor this season, attacking closeouts when the defence contests his shot or even attacking the rim in transition without hesitation. He has a knack for finding his teammates with well-executed passes right into their shooting pockets when the defence sells out on him and takes away his drive, making him a difficult player to defend as a second-side initiator once the defence is put into rotation.

Some of the plays Watanabe has made this season also show that there is still some untapped potential with his budding off-the-dribble game, as he executes smooth pull-up jumpers and picture-perfect passes at full speed.

Plus, Watanabe barely needs the ball in his hands to succeed, making quick decisions either to shoot, dribble, or pass, with his average time per touch of just 1.54 seconds ranking second-quickest behind Birch among all Raptors rotation players.

Defensively, Watanabe’s head is always on a swivel. His rotations are so quick that he is perfect for Nurse’s system and can cover up for his teammates’ gambles or mistakes.

Watanabe has been the Closeout King from the moment he came to the Raptors, covering a ton of ground with his six-foot-nine frame and stopping on a dime with a hand in his opponents’ faces as he closes out on shooters without fouling or getting blown by. It’s a hard skill to master, and one that is especially crucial for a Raptors team that wants to use its size and length to pinch into the paint and simultaneously get out to the perimeter to contest three-point shots.

The forward ranks near the very top of the league in shot contests per 36 minutes with 12.8, and third in the league in three-point shot contests per 36 minutes among players who have played at least 100 minutes, with 5.6. Plus, his block percentage of 1.9 ranks in the 94th percentile for his forwards in the NBA.

On the ball, Watanabe has great lateral quickness for his size, helping him stay in front of his man. He is an above-average rebounder on both sides of the ball — another thing that is especially valuable to this Raptors team, considering how often they play small without a traditional centre on the floor. Watanabe is placed in the 63rd percentile or better as a defensive rebounder for the second-straight season, helping prop up those small groups that ask him to battle for rebounds against bigger opponents.

It’s no wonder the Raptors are 3.2 points per 100 possessions better on defence when Watanabe is on the floor.

But it’s his energy that Nurse values so much, and it’s that energy and attention to detail that have enabled him to be the first player off the bench over these last few games.

After all, Watanabe literally plays so hard that Nurse has said he has to monitor his minutes in order to avoid playing him for long stretches because of how tired he gets. For a Raptors bench that doesn’t have a ton of skilled shot creators and relies on the defence and transition to succeed, Watanabe’s energy is infectious and important on this young team. He brings it every night with a consistency we don’t see from the other bench players.

Watanabe is especially interesting because his contract expires at the end of this season, meaning the Raptors will need to consider whether or not he is in their long-term plans as early as the trade deadline. The forward is due for a significant raise on his current salary of $1.76 million, and if the Raptors aren’t willing to pay him this summer, another team will be: his skill set as a 3-and-D wing with a budding off-the-dribble game makes him a valuable player with room to grow despite being 27 years old.

“I’m really proud of myself,” Watanabe said recently about his play. “The work I’ve put in over the years has finally started paying off. That’s not something I just worked on this summer or this pre-season. I’ve been putting in the work for years and years and I think it’s finally paying off.

“So, I just gotta keep working hard and keep playing with confidence.”

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