Last week, the Memphis Hustle hired former Iowa Wolves GM Brad Jones to be the team’s new head coach. As we noted in a piece breaking down the move, Jones was an ideal selection to lead the Grizzlies’ minor league affiliate due his past experience at both the NBA and G League level.
In the NBA, he spent two years as Quin Snyder’s lead assistant coach with the Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, Jones arguably stands as one of the more successful coaches in G League history due to how he led the Austin Toros to a championship in 2011-12 and was the head coach when the Utah Flash appeared in the Finals during the 2008-09 season.
His experience in the NBA and success in the G League would definitely allow anyone to be optimistic that Jones can immediately step in and be a great mentor to the young talent on the Hustle’s roster. One of the prospects that the Grizzlies will hope that grows under the tutelage of Jones would be two-way prospect Yuta Watanabe, who will be entering the organization after a four-year career at George Washington University.
During Watanabe’s stint with that team, the 6’9 forward mostly shined due to his great effort on the defensive end. His great play was extremely evident during his senior year as he averaged 1.6 blocks per game, which stood as the 3rd highest average in the Atlantic 10. That solid average was largely due to how versatile Watanabe is as a defender as he can both do work on the help side and stick with on-ball drivers.
Among those two traits, his on-ball defending skills is definitely more impressive as Watanabe has shown a real knack with sticking to guards or wings. He’s able to do that due to some quick feet and great body control which keeps him in position to make the necessary move when that opponent gets to the paint.
That approach is most evident in the clip below as Watanabe does an amazing job of sticking with the Howard guard like velcro throughout the entire process. Watanabe’s great patience paid off as he ended the play with an extremely clean right-handed block.
Although that great defensive technique led to a good amount of blocks, it also prevented Watanabe from getting into foul trouble. During his senior season, he only committed 1.5 fouls per game, which stood as the lowest average among front-court prospects in the Atlantic 10. That trifecta of being a shot blocker, penetration defender and just staying out of foul trouble led to him being named as the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year.
Despite being looked at as a defensive-minded prospect, Watanabe can also shine on the other end of the court. That promise was evident during his senior season as he averaged 16.3 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 44% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc on 4.7 perimeter attempts per game. Most of his production on the offensive end came through three different methods: perimeter/mid-range shooting and in transition.
Among those skills, his work as a perimeter shooter might be his most interesting trait as that’s an area where he showed improvement during his time at George Washington. During both his sophomore and junior season, he failed to shoot better than 31% from beyond the arc. However, that below-average shooting subsided as his 3-point shooting percentage improved by 5 percentage points as he shot 36% as a senior.
Watanabe’s solid percentage doesn’t actually tell the full story as that 36% seems pedestrian compared to how he shot against conference foes. In 20 games against Atlantic 10 teams, Watanabe shot 41% from beyond the arc in 4.9 attempts per game. His progression as a perimeter shooter was due to how he seems to have mastered the art of the catch-and-shoot. That knack is evident in the clip below as Watanabe did a great job of getting into position and then going from catch and release in the blink of an eye.
Watanabe’s progression as a shooter was also evident from inside the perimeter during his senior season. In that area, he shows an ability as an off-the-dribble shooter due to Watanabe being able to work around off-ball screens and go to an open spot or just simply go inside the perimeter and shoot if an opponent decides to sag off. Those methods definitely worked as he shot 41% on mid-range jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.
Aside from his improvement as an all-around shooter, Watanabe is pretty much a mixed bag on offense as there isn’t another skill that he excels at. Although he does show some upside as a facilitator and as an offensive rebounder, neither trait would make you believe that it’s something that he can rely upon if his jumper isn’t falling.
Despite not being the most versatile offensive player, Watanabe still stands as a prospect that Grizzlies should be optimistic about. The hope surrounding the rookie is primarily due to his upside as a 3-and-D wing with solid length due to him standing at 6’9. Of course, there’s no doubt about his defense as he’s shown a knack of being able to both control the paint and also stick with driving guards and wings. His great work pushed Watanabe to be named as the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year.
Although his status as a great defender is already set in stone, there might be some initial concern about how his shooting will translate to the G League level due to how most of his 3-pointers came when his feet were right behind the NCAA perimeter. While that may seem like a small issue, it might take Watanabe a bit to get adjusted to the longer NBA 3-point line. His struggles from that area was already evident during Vegas Summer League as he shot just 33% from beyond the arc on 4.2 attempts per game.
Once he makes those adjustments, Watanabe could be a pretty solid weapon due to how comfortable he is as a catch-and-shoot target. In addition to that, his ability to work around screens and consistently hit shots from inside the three-point line could allow him to be pretty dangerous if opposing teams aren’t comfortable with defending pick-and-pops that feature two front-court players.
His continued improvement as a perimeter shooter and great work on the defensive end gives him the potential to be a great 3-and-D wing for the Grizzlies. Memphis fans will have an opportunity to watch that progression when Yuta Watanabe makes his debut for the Hustle later this fall.