Earlier today, the 2019 FIBA World Cup tipped off with a matchup between the Nikola Jokic-led Serbian squad and Angola. After today, there will be fifteen more days of international basketball bliss before the title game occurs on September 15th. Late last week, we did a unique preview of the upcoming tournament by looking at five G League prospects to keep an eye on. That grouping included current Memphis Grizzlies two-way player Yuta Watanabe, who will be playing with the Japanese National Team.
Although he’ll probably be an unknown name to many fans that will be watching the tournament, G League followers will be more than familiar with his on-court style. That’s due to how he spent the majority of his rookie year playing with the Memphis Hustle. In 33 games with the team, he put up 14.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks on 44% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc. While those numbers aren’t necessarily spectacular, they don’t tell the full story of his overall on-court impact.
The biggest reason behind that deals with how base stats don’t do an excellent job of quantifying a player’s impact on the other end of the floor. Watanabe stands as a tremendous example of that as he honestly shined as one of the better defensive forwards in the G League last year. While that didn’t necessarily lead to big block or steals numbers, this praise becomes apparent when you watch him work on this end of the court. That’s mostly due to his ability to defend guards on the perimeter while also protecting the rim when an opposing player drives to the paint.
Among those two traits, his ability to defend backcourt players stands as the most impressive. On the perimeter, the 6’9 forward can use his long frame and solid footwork to either close out on a shooter or prevent the ball-handler from getting an open shot on the three-point line. More impressive than that is when the Grizzlies two-way prospect defends that opposing guard when they’re driving to the rim.
Despite standing a handful of inches taller than most guards in the league, quick feet, long frame, and excellent body control allows him to stay with the opponent from perimeter to paint. Once the pair gets close to the rim, Watanabe can get in position to make a stop. An example of that is evident in the clip below as the Grizzlies prospect stays with G League veteran guard Bubu Palo from perimeter to paint before stopping him at the rim with a big right-handed block.
In addition to defending driving guards, Watanabe can stop opposing players while remaining in the paint. He’s able to do that through the power of verticality, which is when the defender has his arms and hands facing the sky while jumping up with the offensive player. A visual instance is seen below as he moves his feet, so he’s facing Rodney Purvis before using vertacility to make a huge stop at the rim.
Although he’s fantastic on the defensive end, Watanabe isn’t a slouch on the other end of the floor. While not necessarily being terrific at one particular trait, the former George Washington forward has shown an ability to contribute through mid-range and perimeter shooting, crashing the offensive glass, driving to the rim with either hand and facilitating. Due to that broad swath of scoring methods, he doesn’t necessarily have a go-to move that he utilizes more than others.
Although he doesn’t have a top way to score, his perimeter jumper is one skill that can determine whether he’ll have a long-term stay in the NBA. Dating back to his college run with George Washington, Watanabe has struggled with efficiency as his best season came as a senior where he hit 36% from beyond the arc on 4.7 attempts per game. That same level persistent during his first season with the Hustle where the rookie shot 34% from long range on 3.8 shots per game.
Currently, the only way that he’s able to hit long-range jumpers is through catch-and-shoot. While evolution will need to happen eventually, the 6’9 forward does an excellent job in this avenue as he’s great at the process of getting to his position, retrieving a pass and quickly firing off a shot. The jumper itself is pretty smooth as it’s quick and has a high release point.
While he isn’t too efficient as a three-point shooter, the Japanese forward seems must more comfortable with getting his shot off as a mid-range threat. More times than not, this approach started on the perimeter as he either uses an excellent first step or fakes to temporarily get around his defender and get to the desired spot. Once Watanabe gets to his location, he can either spot-up or launch up a step-back jumper. No matter the type of shot, he was pretty efficient as he hit 42% on mid-range shots during his rookie season.
In addition to get it done as a shooter, the Grizzlies two-way player is also a threat to get it done inside the paint. Despite not being the most explosive player in the world, he has a solid first step which allows him to move past a lot of G League forwards. Once he gets past that initial defender, he shines through being able to drive to the rim with both his left and right hand. When it comes to finishing, Watanabe can impress through robust hops, which allows him to finish with nice slams.
Whether it’s through being one of the leading players for the Japanese National Team or two-way prospect for the Memphis Grizzlies, the 6’9 forward stands as a flawed but yet solid player. As we’ve gone over, Watanabe has been an average perimeter shooter dating back to his college days with George Washington. Although that allowed him to be a solid role player for the Hustle, improvements to that perimeter percentage need to be made for him to make sure he can graduate to being part of the Grizzlies rotation.
While we wait for those perimeter progressions to occur, Watanabe will still be able to shine through great all-around defense. Whether it’s sticking with a driving guard from perimeter to paint or using verticality as an inside defender, he was able to shine as an elite defender during his rookie year in the G League.
So although he’s still a work in progress, hard work, great defense and solid on-ball driving makes him into an entertaining player to watch. Although it will be another two months until he plays another game with the Memphis Hustle, G League fans will have a chance to watch Yuta Watanabe play for Japan during the ongoing 2019 FIBA World Cup.