There’s something strange about watching Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe play.
On the surface, it’s easy to see he’s different. He and fellow countryman Rui Hachimura are the only East Asian and Japanese players in the NBA. But the differences run much deeper than just race. Watanabe plays like his feet are on fire. He’s constantly running around, jumping in and out of attacking lanes, and wreaking havoc on opposing offences.
To the untrained eye, he almost looks silly. He looks like he has no idea what he’s doing on the court, running around frantically chasing the ball. But when you really look closely it’s quite the opposite. Watanabe knows exactly what he’s doing.
“He plays a bit frantic because he’s just playing so hard all the time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on Sunday. “I mean, not frantic, I mean he’s pretty comfortable with the ball and stuff, but he just constantly in motion, which is really good.”
Watanabe seems to always be a step ahead of the opposing offence. He looks so strange because he’s constantly pinching in and then rushing to the perimeter to close out on shooters. It’s a never-ending cycle of in and out, in and out for Watanabe on the defensive end.
In the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic, he pinched in off Aaron Gordon to contest a Terrence Ross jumper. Later in the night, he jumped into the lane to cut off penetration from Cole Anthony before recovering onto Gary Clark.
“He just doesn’t make many mistakes and he just keeps hustling,” Nurse said.
There were times in the past that Watanabe said he wondered if he’d ever get an opportunity to show what he could do at the NBA level. He said he spent two seasons in Memphis sitting on the bench cheering on his teammates from the sideline and never really got a chance to show his skills. It wouldn’t have been that surprising if NBA teams passed over the 6-foot-9 Watanabe because of the color of his skin and a bias against Asian NBA players. It wouldn’t have been the first time a talented Asian NBA player was dismissed without getting a fair shot. But instead of sulking, Watanabe just worked harder.
He said he spent much of his time last offseason in the gym working on his 3-point shot. He kept training, hoping that one day he’d get a real opportunity. Finally, on a training camp contract with the Raptors, he did enough to warrant a closer look.
“I never knew I would get an opportunity like this,” he said. “In training camp I worked hard every day. I was able to show what I can do to coaches, front office, and teammates, I got the two-way and now I’m getting the opportunity so I’m really proud of myself and what I’m doing right now.”
Over the last five games, Watanabe has played almost 100 minutes. It certainly won’t stay that way, especially with OG Anunoby and Norman Powell coming back from injury, but it’s been an impressive run. He makes smart decisions and he’s not a defensive liability. On the Raptors, that’s all it takes to get a fair shot.
Now, even with some stability under his feet, Watanabe won’t take anything for granted. He’s seen what life is like on the other side both in the G League and at the end of the bench and he knows how frustrating that can be. The moment he stops playing with that hustle and energy he’ll be gone, replaced by another up-and-comer looking for an NBA chance.
It’s a fickle business, but for now, Watanabe has earned his stripes.