On May 25th, 2019, the Toronto Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals en route to winning the coveted Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
It was a stark contrast to May 10 of this season, just under 2 years late, when the Raptors found out that they were officially eliminated from playoff contention- ending an incredible seven-year streak of postseason appearances for the organization.
As the dust settles on a turbulent 2020-2021 season that was nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster, both from the perspective of the organization and the fans, there have been a lot of memories that we would rather see in the rear-view mirror cruising into next season.
But there’s always a silver lining amidst the chaos. This season, we saw quite a few unsung heroes who stepped up when their number was called.
Here are the 3 Raptors that exceeded expectations in 2020-2021
1. Yuta Watanabe
When training camp kicked off last November, it was an audition for Watanabe, as he had to battle it out for a roster spot against guys like Oshae Brissett, Paul Watson, and Alize Johnson.
In 22 games with the G-League, he averaged 17.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in 32.7 minutes – showing signs of raw talent and potential for the Raptors to convert yet another G-league standout into a glue guy.
By the third week of December, he passed the eye test with the organization and was given a two-way contract with hopes that he would prove himself by the season’s end.
At a quick glance, Watanabe’s numbers don’t jump across the page. He finished the season with averages of 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds to go with shooting splits of 44% from the field, 40% from 3-point range, and 83% from the free-throw line in just 14.5 minutes per game. But when he got the opportunity, he took advantage of every possession.
Watanabe is a high IQ player with defensive instincts that fits perfectly with the Raptors’ style. He hustled, switched, and rotated on defense extremely well and showed us some highlight-worthy plays with his blocking potential.
Yuta Watanabe has impressed during his stint with the Toronto Raptors.
On the offensive end, Watanabe sees the floor well as a passer, while shooting confidently from three and providing a spark of energy much needed as the Raptors work hard to develop Bench Mob 2.0.
An ankle injury in February slowed him down for a bit, but he started to get his groove back in the month of April. Averaging around 18 minutes per game, he bumped his scoring up to 7.8 points- while shooting 57% from the field and a fiery 45% from three.
On April 16, he scored a career-high of 21 points against the Orlando Magic, finishing with 7-11 shooting from the field and 2-4 from three along with six rebounds, two assists, and one block in 26 minutes.
Three days later, the Raptors finally rewarded the versatile forward with a standard NBA contract. Watanabe finished the season with career-highs across all categories in 2021 with the Raptors.
At 26 years old, this was a make-or-break season and he tried to prove himself every time he got minutes, regardless of if it was meaningful or in garbage time. In a must-read article titled, The Power of Words that was released by Watanabe in The Players Tribune, Yuta candidly expresses himself.
In this world, there are star players with egos. I know I’m not that kind of player….I feel I can contribute to the team by doing the dirty work that doesn’t necessarily translate to stats.
It’s this kind of attitude that will help Watanabe push the ceiling even higher going forward- hopefully as a member of the Raptors bench squad.