Raptors: Does Yuta Watanabe have an inside track on a roster spot?

In a few days, the Toronto Raptors will begin training camp, with their first preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers coming up on October 4. A new era of basketball starts in Toronto with young stars like Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Yuta Watanabe, and Gary Trent trying to make their mark in the game as members of the Raptors roster.

There will be competition up and down the roster for playing time, but the rotation seems set. However, perhaps the most significant battle is for the final roster spots. NBA franchises are allowed 15 players with two two-way contracts allotted to each franchise.

Toronto has draft pick David Johnson and undrafted signee Justin Champagnie on two-way deals, meaning there will be 20 players in training camp. With 12 guaranteed contracts, the two two-way deals, and the six remaining non-guarantees, Toronto will likely cut three of those non-guarantees before the season starts.

The remaining roster hopefuls include two 2020-21 holdovers in Watanabe and Freddie Gillespie, two international free agents in Ishmail Wainright and Sam Dekker, and two youngsters with NBA experience in Isaac Bonga and Reggie Perry.

Out of these six players, there are various reasons to like, root, and cheer for each, but only three can stick with the Raptors. Watanabe must be one of these three.

Yuta Watanabe may secure the final roster spot with the Raptors.

In 2021 he had his two-way contract converted in April based on some impressive play off of the bench. In his third NBA season, he played in 50 games, surpassing his total games combined in his rookie and sophomore seasons with Memphis.

He also upped his scoring averaged from 2 points to 4.4 per game in 14 minutes with Toronto. His shooting splits were 43.9% from the field, 40% from 3-point range, and 82.8% from the free-throw line. He proved he is no longer heading back to the G League ranks.

On defense, Watanabe was genuinely excellent last season, as he had the bounce needed to stick with guards and the wingspan to become a pest down low. That’s the kind of stuff that will get you a leg up in the competition for a roster spot.

The Raptors’ backcourt has been a source of some serious second-guessing this offseason, as they haven’t added tons of tremendous shooting talent behind Trent. Watanabe keeps getting better in that area, all while showing off excellent defense and hustle. What more does he need to do to prove himself?

Last season, as his defensive prowess was getting him more game action with the Raptors, Raptors’ merchandise and Watanabe’s jersey became hot ticket items in Japan. According to a Japanese basketball broadcaster, Chris Sasaki:

“Yuta had to pay his dues and everything and I think a lot of Japanese people have kind of like they really relate to Yuta’s work ethic,”

It’s why Watanabe has once again jumped to the top of Japan’s NBA jersey sales list this season and why the Raptors — for the first time in franchise history — haven’t just made their debut appearance on Japans most sold NBA jerseys list, but they’re leading the league in jerseys sold, the NBA announced Tuesday night.

Combine the fact he’s becoming a sensation in Japan due to his trailblazing with the idea that he’s a fan favorite in Canada with his play on the court, and he should secure the 15th and final roster spot on the Raptors.

Watanabe’s best basketball is in the windshield, not the rearview mirror.