Yuta Watanabe’s blue-collar work ethic and perpetual desire to improve were defining characteristics of his rookie season.
Playing for the Memphis Grizzlies and the team’s NBA G League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle, Watanabe made positive impressions throughout the long season.
The bulk of his playing time came with the Hustle due to his two-way contract. Per rules of NBA two-way deals that began in the 2017-18 campaign, a player can spend up to 45 days on an NBA roster, with the rest of the season with a G League club.
Watanabe appeared in 33 games for the Hustle, making 32 starts. He scored 14.2 points per game, while posting averages of 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 steals. In other words, he was active in all phases of the game.
The 206-cm small forward, who also spent time in the backcourt, also played in 15 Grizzlies games, averaging 11.6 minutes, 2.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists. The Kagawa Prefecture native shot 29.4 percent from the floor in those games, and Watanabe admitted he has immediate targets for improvement before next season tips off.
“In the offseason I’ll work on my shooting, so I don’t miss any makable shots,” Watanabe was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after the Grizzlies’ final regular-season game against the Golden State Warriors on April 10 in Memphis. “My goal is to be on a full NBA roster (next season).”
The Grizzlies, who went 33-49, missed the playoffs and fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff, while reassigning general manager Chris Wallace to a scouting position. It’s unclear right now if their revamped management team will seek to keep Watanabe under a two-way deal for one more year, offer him a regular NBA contract or part ways with him. In essence, Watanabe and others on two-ways deals occupy the final NBA roster spots, Nos. 16 and 17.
Watanabe has greater ambitions, and knows there are no shortcuts to make it happen.
“It’s important to strengthen my body while also improving my shot. Shooting and defense are how I’ll make my living, so those are the areas I really have to work on,” the George Washington University alum was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
Pete Pranica, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Grizzlies, noted that Watanabe made quick adjustments as a rookie.
“What was most impressive about Yuta were his defensive instincts and how he played the game so smoothly and effortlessly,” Pranica told Hoop Scoop on Tuesday. “Sometimes young players can be a bit mechanical, but he was smooth on both ends of the floor. Yuta is a very bright guy and so he not only took coaching very well, but rarely made the same mistake twice after having been coached on it. I think his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached are his greatest assets.”