The NBA can be a very, very lonely place these days.
Take Yuta Watanabe, for example. The Toronto Raptors’ new fan favourite has been so locked in on this season that Yuta-mania hasn’t even hit him. He hasn’t realized how much Raptors fans seem to adore him or how Japanese media packs into Raptors Zoom calls on a nightly basis hoping to hear something from the Japanese star.
“I don’t know, actually,” Watanabe said. “We’ve been playing [in] empty arena and usually those interviews [are] through the Zoom call, so I don’t know if I have gained some fans or media attention or not, but yeah, so I guess I don’t really know right now.”
It’s hard not to cheer for Watanabe. He’s the prototypal Toronto sports fan favorite. It’s not just that he’s Japanese — though Toronto has a history of irrational love affairs with Japanese athletes, see Munenori Kawasaki — it’s a combination of his defensive IQ, his non-stop hustle, and the humbleness with which he talks.
There were low expectations of him when he first arrived in Raptors training camp. He had played in 33 NBA games with the Memphis Grizzlies and hadn’t shown much to warrant any more playing time. Frankly, it was a little surprising when he made the Raptors roster over Oshae Brissett and Alize Johnson. But when he first set foot on the court in a Raptors uniform it became clear exactly why he cracked the roster.
He’s a brilliant defender, always a step ahead of the opposing offence. In Toronto’s complex defensive scheme, the fact that he’s been able to quickly pick things up without the usual mix-ups that come from new players has been invaluable for the Raptors.
“That’s something that I really take pride of and I think I’m a really good defender,” he said. “I’ve still got things to keep working on it but I think so far in this season, I’ve been doing the job on defense and I think I’m really understanding well the team’s system.”
Then there’s his humbleness. Ask him how he became such a great shot blocker and he’ll smile unsure himself of how he got to this point.
“I don’t know. I was a good shot blocker in Japan because I was just taller than most other people,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m doing well blocking shots in the NBA. It’s kind of crazy, right?”
Maybe he just hasn’t been on social media a lot lately. Maybe he’s been so focused on his NBA career he hasn’t had time to realize his new popularity. But when he does, he’s surely in for a treat.