It wasn’t long after the Toronto Raptors’ 112-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night that Yuta Watanabe was pulled aside by Raptors general manager Bobby Webster for a brief conversation.
The 26-year-old Watanabe has been one of the few bright spots on the Raptors this season and he’s shown far more talent than his two-way contract would suggest. If the Raptors wanted to, they could have let Watanabe wither away on a two-way contract for the rest of the year before dealing with a contract extension this summer. The NBA adjusted rules this season due to COVID-19 to allow for two-way players to play all season with their NBA club. So in a way, there was no reason and certainly, no financial reason for the Raptors to make a deal with Watanabe. And yet, on Sunday night, they decided to reward the Japanese forward for his impressive play.
“We thought he deserved it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s certainly under consideration to be part of this team going forward.”
To some extent, Watanabe knew it was coming. He said he and his agent had been talking to the Raptors about a deal for about a week. But when Webster pulled him aside, the excitement of that moment wasn’t lost.
“This is what I’ve been working for. I’ve been very happy. I’m motivated more than ever, and ready to work,” Watanabe said.
It wasn’t long after the ink had dried that Watanabe jumped on the phone with his parents to share the news.
“It was just like me. They are super happy. My mom was almost crying,” he said. “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.”
Even though Watanabe’s spot on the Raptors is a little bit more certain now, his contract is reportedly non-guaranteed for next year, according to The Athletic’s Blake Murphy, and Watanabe is not ready to take his foot off the gas pedal.
“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.”
With 14 games to go this season and the Raptors focusing more on development than making the playoffs, Watanabe should certainly have plenty of time to show he deserves a spot on next year’s roster.