Nurse had been a fan of Watanabe dating back to preseason, when he was one of several players in contention for the last roster spot out of training camp. Nurse sees Watanabe’s progression from being a G-League standout, to now securing a spot in his rotation and a contract with the team, as the latest example of what the Raptors are all about as an organization.
“That’s what we’re about. Developing players, giving them an opportunity, and when they make the most of it, we try to keep rolling with them and keep teaching them how to become even better players, and even better teammates for the Raptors,” Nurse said.
For Watanabe, the news of his signing created major headlines in his native of Japan. Watanabe is just the third NBA player from Japan, along with Rui Hachimura and Yuta Tabuse, and Watanabe fielded questions from Japanese reporters for almost half an hour. But the biggest celebration of all was with Watanabe and his family, which includes two parents and a sister who all played basketball at the national or professional level.
“My mom was almost crying, and I told my mom this is just the beginning. We were really happy and they say they are really proud of me,” Watanabe said.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse didn’t make the decision to convert the contract but he was certainly a proponent of it.
“We thought he deserved it,” Nurse said simply. “We had the roster spot to do it with, he’s been a good pro, a good player and he’s working hard and I think — again, I don’t want to misspeak here — but I would say that he’s certainly under consideration to be part of this team going forward.”
Because Watanabe’s situation is so closely monitored from Japan, Nurse, on pretty much a nightly basis, gets asked about the 6-foot-9 forward’s progress and the reports have been glowing for the bulk of the season and increasingly so since his minutes started ramping up in April.
“If he can keep getting better there’s a spot for him to earn and continue to get minutes and all of those kind of things and that’s what we’re all about,” Nurse said. “Developing players, giving them opportunity, and when they make the most of it they’ve gotta try to keep growing with them and keep teaching them how to become even better players and better teammates for the Raptors.”
Watanabe comes from a basketball background with both parents having played nationally for Japan. He was asked yesterday what their reaction was to his new contract.
“It was just like me,” Watanabe said. “They are super happy. My mom was almost crying. I told my mom, ‘This is just the beginning.’ We are very happy. They say they are very proud of me, so I’m very happy.”
That seemed to be the message Watanabe was intent on sending yesterday. The contract is nice, but it’s far from the end of the journey for him.
“My contract changed, but what I have to do won’t change,” he said. “I have to keep doing what I have been doing. Be out there, bring a lot of energy, play defence, grab rebounds, run some offence, play aggressive, stuff like that. Next year is not guaranteed yet, so I just got to keep showing what I can do.”
From the beginning of the year it has been Watanabe’s energy that made him stand out. He’s a tireless worker and you can’t help but see that when he’s on the floor.
Of late, though, the real progress has been in his willingness to expand his own game and the confidence to take shots that earlier in the year he was turning down in favour of setting up a teammate.
Since the beginning of April, which not coincidentally followed a return to health following an injury, Watanabe is confidently stepping into shots without hesitation and he’s making them.
With Watanabe, however, he’s had the advantage of being with the team the entire season to learn not just the so-called “right way” to play but also Nurse’s sometimes-complicated offensive and defensive systems, something that quite a few players on the team haven’t had the luxury of.
For example, Gary Trent Jr., who just came over in the trade with the Portland Trail Blazers at the trade deadline, is still getting up to speed with everything almost four weeks into his Raptors tenure.
“It’s just learning everything I can. From the littlest things down to help defence,” said Trent. “Where I just came from it’s completely different. The offence is kind of different too. So, every day just getting better as much as I can whether it’s locking in during practice or staying 15, 20 minutes after and running through the plays. Running through the plays 20 or 30 minutes before the game with our shootaround. So, trying to learn as much as I can with the circumstances we are in with COVID. There are only certain times you can practice or watch film sessions as a group so learning as much as I can on the fly.”
Despite all the newness, however, there’s steady progress being made by Trent. Nurse believes he’s about halfway there with learning his system and is confident that he’ll be able to get things down pat before the end of the regular season – even with just 14 games left to play.
“It doesn’t really feel like the end of the season, to me,” said Nurse. “I think since the trade, we’ve upped our practice time considerably. Practice availability, shootaround. Not like they used to be but still on the court, spending some time, and things like that. More on the road, figuring out walkthroughs, just a lot more film, just a lot more teaching, and time together. Probably for this time of year a lot more.
“But it’s because we’re trying to get all these guys integrated quickly and we’re trying to improve and I might as well say it today, we’re trying to play the right way.”
Nurse was half-joking when he mentioned that last bit there, but thanks to COVID protocols loosening just a little bit more, he’s been able to sneak in more practices and teach more than he likely has all season, and the results are showing of late.
Much has already changed for the Raptors in the final third of the season. A number of familiar names left at the late March trade deadline, including Norman Powell, traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood. Toronto has signed Freddie Gillespie, on back-to-back 10-day contracts, and Khem Birch, after he was waived by the Orlando Magic, as well.
Integrating the new guys and improving the team’s play has meant more practices, walk-throughs, film, teaching and, ultimately, time together — activities that, in other years or with other teams, may have been generally abandoned by this point in the season as rest and recovery becomes more prevalent.
One thing has remained the same, and it has been easy for the new guys to grasp: Toronto’s desire to reach the playoffs.
“I just feel like we’re trying to make a push right now. I think we’re the 10th seed,” Birch said Sunday, before wins by both Chicago and Washington the next day pushed Toronto back down to 12th in the Eastern Conference, a half game back of the Bulls and Wizards.
“We’re trying to at least get into the play-in so we can make the playoffs.”
Finishing 10th in the East, the final spot for the play-in tournament that will determine the seventh and eighth seeds in the NBA playoffs, will likely come down to a battle between the three teams.
Toronto has played one more game than both Chicago and Washington. The Bulls and Wizards both have 15 games remaining on the schedule before the regular season wraps up May 16.
A winning week for the Raptors? No way!
After going 3-1 over the past seven days, Toronto put together the first winning run they’ve had since they were in the thick of playoff race back in February. After some extremely bad luck and interesting personnel moves since the trade deadline, the Raptors now find themselves in a three-way race for the last play-in spot.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are reeling, and Zach LaVine’s health situation may make it hard for them to get their spot back. As you’ll recall, the Bulls went all-in on making the playoffs and have no interest in tanking since their pick is going to the Orlando Magic. Also, there’s a third team to consider here: the Washington Wizards. They’re a weird beast, as they have top-level talent in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, but have also been drifting along. The Wizards organization is thirsty for any post-season play, though, even a fake playoff run to appease Beal. We’ll see this coming week which team comes out ahead.
As for the Raptors, well, their actions say one thing, but the results say another. It’s worth noting first that they just played through a soft stretch of schedule. How soft was it? Toronto’s win against the Spurs ended up being huge, as it was their first victory against a team over .500 since defeating the Denver Nuggets on March 24. Throughout the past week, however, the Raptors have been resting key players — and if that’s not to tank, then what are they doing?
The answer may be as plain as what coach Nick Nurse said last week — the Raptors are developing their players. For Malachi Flynn to get his reps, at least one of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has to take the day off. We will never know what Paul Watson Jr, Yuta Watanabe, and Freddie Gillespie can do without an extended look — and that would mean freeing up frontcourt minutes pegged for Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Win or lose, that’s at least a solid idea for the future.
I think this one is getting at the roster construction of the team and how to move forward. Again, Kawhi ruined the natural order of things. The Raptors had gone as far as the Kyle-DeMar tandem could take them, took a massive swing on a player coming off an injury and a year away from free agency and it paid off in a championship, and… he left.
Instead of having a clear-cut championship contender for another few years, the Raptors had to shift into this strange spot of being where nobody wants to be: Not good enough to win a title. Not bad enough to bottom out.
Is trading one of Fred, Pascal and OG the path to something better? If we learned anything from the 2019 championship, it’s that you need some luck (I mean, check how stacked this roster was. VanVleet and Ibaka came off the bench… and they still almost lost in Round 2. Also, Kevin Durant’s injury) but also you need a supporting cast.
You know who would be great supporting players on a title team? Pascal and Fred! You know why I know? Because they literally proved it two years ago. I’ll throw OG in there too even though he was injured during the title run. We’ve seen from his rookie season and last year in the bubble he’s definitely not someone who lets the spotlight get to him.
The Raptors need a star, yes. But when I look at Fred, Pascal and OG, I don’t see three guys who need to be moved. I see three guys who would be an incredible supporting cast for a No. 1 star — ask players like LeBron (a few of his Cleveland years), Stephen Curry (right now), and even Luka Doncic. Finding a supporting cast to surround your star is not the easiest thing. I still believe the Raptors have those pieces.
How they’re going to land a true superstar and get back in contention? Well… when are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort’s contracts up?