By all rights, Yuta Watanabe shouldn’t have even sniffed the Toronto Raptors rotation at the beginning of the year, as he is currently signed to a two-way contract that allows him to be sent down to Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate. However, after Nick Nurse got desperate amid a 2-8 slide, Watanabe ended up as a valued member of the Raptors’ rotation.
Watanabe has averaged 3.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks per game. Those numbers have increased to 4.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in the last nine games, where Watanabe has averaged 15 minutes per game.
While he is still on a two-way contract, his performance in the last few weeks has to have shown Nurse and Masai Ujiri that he is not only an NBA player, but a damn good one. Ujiri needs to convert Watanabe’s contract into a full NBA deal, as doing so would properly reward him for his fantastic effort this season.
Yuta Watanabe’s energy is vital for the Toronto Raptors
Watanabe, who had a fantastic college career at George Washington, struggled to crack the rotation in Memphis, as his average offensive game and think frame made him an unusual fit, as the Grizzlies couldn’t figure out if he was a big guard, a skinny wing, or an undersized power forward. Toronto has let him play the wing, and he’s excelled.
While Watanabe’s 35 percent field goal percentage leaves a lot to be desired, he has become one of the team’s best defenders, as his non-stop energy and pestilent style of play has helped the Raptors steady the ship after their poor start. In fact, the advanced stats actually make Watanabe’s defense look even better than it looks on film.
He is blocking 2.6 percent of shots when he is on the floor, the best rate in the league for a forward. Watanabe also has the best defensive rebounding rate of any forward, as he vacuums up 22.0 percent of available defensive rebounds and 7.6 percent of all offensive rebounds when he’s on the floor.
The next thing Watanabe needs to improve is his offensive game. While he is a 42 percent shooter from 3-point range and can excel in catch-and-shoot situations, he struggles when he puts the ball on the floor and gets closer to the rim. Luckily, he has a coach in Nurse that excels in helping former G League players improve on offense.
The success of Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher shows that if the Raptors want to put the time into developing, the Japanese wing could become a rock-solid starter. Watanabe’s NBA journey is just beginning, and Toronto could be the perfect springboard.