Mastering the Defensive Margins with Yuta Watanabe

8 mins read

There’s a vast amount of opportunities to provide value on a basketball team. Yuta Watanabe mines the court for those opportunities.

It’s uncommon for NBA teams to litter their rosters with many sub-40-percent shooters, and when they do they’re typically underperforming, volume shooting legends (Carmelo Anthony) or a young prospect they assume will turn it around (Anfernee Simons) – okay, what the hell is going on in Portland? Anyway, why is Watanabe figuring into the Raptors rotation despite not being a volume shooting legend (but a legend all the same) or a young and enticing prospect? Watanabe earns his minutes by defending at an All-NBA level.

Watanabe has made his case for minutes on these Raptors by exhibiting an immense amount of control over the opposing players who have the misfortune of entering his defensive sphere. Attacking a closeout is a fairly simplistic thing relative to how complex other aspects of NBA offense can be. Identify the foot to attack, or the hips, and put the ball down as you burst into space. Watanabe inverts this equation by reading the offensive players hips, feet and eyes. “What makes this player dangerous? Can I contain him downhill? Where is my help coming from?” Despite his middling athleticism and wingspan – Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, and Patrick McCaw all boast a wingspan greater than or equal to Watanabe’s –  opposing players are consistently overwhelmed as they’re beat to their own spots. Asking questions and answering them as the play develops, the cerebral nature of Watanabe’s defense keeps him in control, always.

In fact, Watanabe moves so well defensively that he might even make you question how we view typical athleticism and how it relates to defense. Fans and analysts alike have told me that because of how Watanabe affects other players on defense, they thought his wingspan was over 7-feet. Shuttle speeds, wingspan, and vertical leap mean virtually nothing if the application isn’t rapid, and Watanabe’s defensive applications certainly are rapid. He’ll never spur on a dialogue like Luka Doncic has, but Watanabe makes me think about what I should start looking for in defensive prospects.

The second closeout in particular is *insane*. Not only does he stonewall Holiday the first time around, but when Holiday takes it back the other way, Watanabe gives him a buffer of space so that Holiday can’t use his body to protect against the contest. Then, Watanabe contests at the bucket and forces the airball. All this after playing very deep in help-side to protect Stanley Johnson against Sabonis. This possession is a defensive masterclass.

There’s been countless possessions where Watanabe has tracked back across the court to take away an open 3-point shot and corral his opponent to the bucket where he contests exceptionally well; and way more instances where he quite simply ends the danger of his opponents possession of the ball, forcing a pass out and a reset. Watanabe’s coverage and smarts continue to erase advantages that the offensive team has worked so hard to get.

Watanabe isn’t limited to point-of-attack defense either. He’s very involved as a team defender, and if you take time to watch him when he’s on the court you’ll see the careful attention he pays to his defensive spacing and his matchup. Not only does this allow the Raptors to keep the shell of their defense intact and protect against baseline and ’45’ cuts, but his knowledge of where his primary matchup is affords him the ability to hunt rebounds and closeout defensive possessions, or bound over for help-side defense. Watanabe is guilty of leaving his man at times, but his assessment of when it’s advantageous to do so is usually bang on. The result? Per Cleaning the Glass’ classification, Watanabe has the highest block-percentage among forwards and is in the 98th-percentile for defensive rebounding-rate.

*Watanabe’s head is constantly on a swivel. Some players think defense ends at their man, but he is so clearly eager to contribute any way he can. If there’s an opportunity to rotate to the rim, he does it. Box out, he does it. Get back in transition, he does it. He never stops contributing. 

There are really impressive defenders in the NBA who do very little in the way of defensive playmaking, but the very best in the league can typically find room to make plays that pop. Watanabe is doing a fantastic job of walking the line of defensive risk-assessment.

“Baseball is the biggest sport in Japan, then soccer, and basketball is… People don’t really care about basketball.” – Yuta Watanabe

“I didn’t know if I would be good enough to play for an American college team. But I wanted to try.” – Yuta Watanabe

“My dream is to play someday in the NBA.” – Yuta Watanabe

“Coming into this season, I was only on a training camp deal. So, I never knew if I was going to get an opportunity like this. In training camp I worked hard everyday, and I was able to show what I can do to the coaches, front office, and my teammates. I got the two-way, and now I’m getting my opportunities. I’m really proud of myself, and what I’m doing right now.” – Yuta Watanabe

Watanabe is intelligent, hardworking, and talented. I hope he continues to get minutes. Who doesn’t love to watch All-NBA defenders put the clamps on? Obviously he won’t get any type of defensive accolades this season, and maybe never will in the NBA. The minutes aren’t there, and neither is the role. But, he does his thing in his minutes. For the Raptors, they’ve found a useful piece. For Watanabe, this could be one of the most important years of his life.

Yuta Watanabe – The Chosen One – Dayman

The legend grows.

Have a blessed day.






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