This is part of a series of player reviews from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.
Amidst a season with the only constant being inconsistency, there was a lot of room for Nick Nurse to experiment with different lineups. It wasn’t by choice, but rather because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. But we learned so much about Toronto’s newest additions and while there’s about as much clarity about where the roster stands today, as there was at the end of the season, the Raptors are by no means in a bad place. However, one project on the team was Yuta Watanabe, who spent the last two years in the G-League on the Grizzlies’ G-League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle. He was undrafted in 2018 but played for the Brooklyn Nets in the 2018 Summer League, before signing a two-way contract with Vancouver’s former franchise.
He played more NBA games this season than he did in the last two years combined with Memphis. Watanabe signed an Exhibit 10 deal with the Raptors in late-November, and Toronto converted it to a two-way deal in December. He showed that he can be serviceable, but with all the juggling Nurse had to do, nobody had a consistent season. He only played 30 minutes once and that was against the Clippers near the end of the season. He scored a career-high 21 points against the Orlando Magic and while it was nice to see the flashes of offensive efficiency (seven of 11 shooting, along two of four from downtown), Jeff Weltman (hey former Raptors EVP of basketball operations) pivoted for a rebuild so Watanabe’s brilliance came against a very young and experienced team.
There were two games I decided to re-watch simply because he saw a career-high 30 minutes and in the other, he showed impressive defensive tendencies against an All-Star big man. Now obviously two games isn’t enough to work with when effectively analyzing a player. However, it can show you certain tendencies, as well as opportunities within specific matchups that said player may have failed to expose. He got the most run here out of any game Toronto played so that’s the one I focused on. On top of that, the Clippers are thin in the paint. So, if he wasn’t a slasher before, this was the game for him to work on that aspect.
He registered six points, six rebounds, two steals and one assist, shooting 33 per cent from the field and knocking down two of his five three-point attempts. Except for the field goal percentage, he tallied numbers above his season averages (4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.5 steals, 0.7 three’s). Let me preface my actual analysis by saying that LeBron James numbers are not at all within the realm of reality that is Watanabe’s ceiling. With that being said, when taking his wingspan (six feet and eight inches) and height (six feet and nine inches) into consideration, the physical tools are there. However, he still has room for improvement there too. But again, it was only his third year in the league and the first season that he played more than 20 games.
Defensively, the tools are… also there. I think putting on some muscle, along with building up confidence is the most important thing for Watanabe. Going back to his frame – he’s slender, agile and long so in order for him to be a defensive ace, he really doesn’t need much other than the effort. For example, here’s a perfect example of Watanabe reading where everyone is on the court.
In this particular play, Watanabe is the defensive anchor. He has every Orlando Magic player in his sight and the Raptors are set in a three-two zone defense. Since Nikola Vucevic (#9) is the obvious recipient of the ball, he only has one choice of where to go and that’s straight to the basket. If he tries to go towards his right, Pascal Siakam can switch on to him, while Kyle Lowry slides up, Watanabe slides right along the baseline, Boucher would drop down to the corner baseline and the zone defense would reset. Or Siakam could use his length to smother Vucevic and Toronto’s other defender would deny any and all passing lanes and the zone defense would reset.
At this point Lowry would either need to take one of his patented charges or it’s time for Watanabe to avenge that Anthony Edwards baptism (I’m sorry but that dunk was vicious). While his feet aren’t set, all of his momentum is pushing him towards a collision with the Magic’s big man.
Now we get the full matchup. It’s do or die for Watanabe. The easiest pass for Vucevic is towards his left, over to Dwayne Bacon who’s been shooting 29 per cent from three this season. The Raptors should be all in on going up strong against Vucevic, who outweighs Watanabe by 45 lbs.
And boom! Vucevic is unable to conquer Mount Watanabe, resulting in an emphatic block. However, it also shows that the Raptors forward can properly anticipate what an opposing offense will do. It’s also telling of how he can use his length to be a difference-maker on defense. But, I think adding weight to his frame and packing on some muscle would help him become a better interior defender. It’s worth noting that he registered two more blocks, which completed his career-high of three.
On offense, there are opportunities with him already being a 40 per cent three-point shooter.
Certain situations, like the one above, provide Watanabe with two obvious options. The first and most logical is to cut straight into the paint. Even with the multiple Clipper’s defenders down low, he has a decent chance to draw a foul and head to the line, possibly extending Toronto’s lead by 8. Fred VanVleet is trapped and has clearly given up his dribble so he can’t go anywhere and Watanabe is serving no purpose at the top of the key. The ball would have to zip through multiple defenders in order for VanVleet to get it to anyone, and of the Raptors that are open, Watanabe is the clear number one option. But, it’s on him to come to the ball.
The second option would be a cut to the corner behind VanVleet for a catch-and-shoot and to that point, he was Toronto’s most efficient shooter in those particular situations. There’s a chance that it becomes way too convoluted with multiple Clippers in that corner, but that would also draw those defenders away from Siakam and Birch, freeing up the offense.
Overall, Watanabe has the chance to morph into a solid role player if he’s able to crack the rotation next season. However, there are still some questions regarding his ability. After having his contract converted from an exhibit 10, to a two-way deal, to a standard NBA contract, Watanabe has the opportunity to improve and show that he can help Toronto get back to winning more games than they lose.