While much is being made of Brooklyn Nets Summer League standout Yuta Watanabe’s background, the overriding factor is simply that he can flat-out play.
Yuta Watanabe is trying to travel the hard road to the NBA. After not being drafted last month, the 6-foot-9 kid who was a four-year player at George Washington got a Summer League deal with the Brooklyn Nets.
He’s making the most of the opportunity so far.
Watanabe has been a bright spot on a Nets squad in Las Vegas that has been careless with the basketball and has not shot the ball well at all.
No Net has gotten more minutes than Watanabe’s 76 and he’s gotten that time because he seems to just always be where he’s supposed to be.
He blocks shots — eight in three games. He hits the boards, with 14 rebounds in those three games. He’s shown range, hitting 7-of-16 from 3-point range. He’s made all of his free throws.
Watanabe is Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer of the Summer League, scoring 35 points in three games, trailing only Shawn Dawson‘s 36.
During Monday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Watanabe scored eight of Brooklyn’s point during a 16-0 run late in the first half, including a game-tying 3-pointer and a go-ahead layup.
Monday’s performance — 14 points, 4-of-6 from 3-point range, two blocks — followed up two other very solid showings.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, Watanabe was aggressive to the basket, getting to the line six times, while also blocking four shots with two steals and scoring 13 points.
In the Summer League opener Friday against the Orlando Magic, Watanabe struggled with his shot, going just 3-for-9, but had five rebounds two blocks and displayed that uncanny knack for being around the ball, rotating properly on defense, boxing out — all the little things.
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Oh, and by the way, Watanabe is from Japan and would become just the second Japanese-born NBA player should he find his way onto a regular-season roster. The first, point guard Yuta Tabuse from Akita, Japan, via BYU-Hawaii, played four games with the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05.
Tough break — potentially the second guy from your country to ever play in the Association and he wouldn’t even be the first player named “Yuta.”
Ethnicity aside, what makes Watanabe belong is that he can play. Period.
He has played the stretch-4 role for the Nets in Las Vegas and has transitioned well despite lacking a little on the bulk side at 205 pounds. On Monday, he played more at the 3 with Jarrett Allen being available to play up front.
In college, Watanabe played mostly the 3 spot, occasionally sliding to the backcourt as a 2, so he’s being asked to do more defensively than he has ever been asked before against bigger players.
Call me crazy, but with the Nets having a need for a stretch-4 type of player and Watanabe performing so well in that same role in Las Vegas, how is this not a match?
Watanabe knows his history. He just doesn’t put a lot of stock in it. He told Brian Lewis of the New York Post that he sees himself as a player, not a Japanese player.
"I’m thinking I don’t want to be an NBA player because I’m Japanese. I want to be an NBA player because I’m a basketball player like everyone else.It means a lot to me. But honestly I don’t really care about where I come from or who I am. I just want to prove myself that I am NBA-level."
Like most of the players in Las Vegas, Watanabe is fighting for a job, fighting to continue his dream of playing basketball for a living before having to join the rest of us in the real world.
Count Brooklyn assistant coach Jacque Vaughn, who is coaching the Summer League squad, among his fans.
"He’s making me more comfortable, the coaching staff, for sure. He’s probably been our most consistent player, practices and games included. So I give him credit for that. You saw the weak-side block, the ability to block out, those little things. You see instinctively he knows where to be."
Yuta Watanabe isn’t flashy, but he is solid. And it’s that, more than flash or point of origin, that could help him pave a path to a role in the NBA.