How Yuta Watanabe earned his NBA shot and why this is just the beginning

TORONTO – Ryonan High School star Akira Sendoh stared down the two Shohoku High School defenders that came to meet him along the wing with his trademark easy-going smile. Then, just as it looked like he would be forced to pass out of the double team, Sendoh exploded to the rim.

From there it was elementary for the second-year stud. He drew in Shohoku’s centre and sent a drop-off pass to his own team’s five man and captain, Jun Uozumi, for a thunderous slam.

Sendoh had done it again.

In case you have no idea what those opening paragraphs are referring to, take a look at this clip:

What you see here is a scene from a mid-’90s episode of Slam Dunk, a wildly popular Japanese TV show that reached audiences worldwide and, in particular, left an indelible mark on forward .

In fact, the comic that the TV show is based on is quite possibly Watanabe’s favourite piece of media of all time, despite the fact its run ended in June 1996, when Watanabe was still just a year old.

“I’ve read it, I’m not even kidding, about 100 times,” said Watanabe in a recent interview. “When I was in high school I knew, like, every phrase … and everything that every character said.”

It’s small wonder, then, that so much of Sendoh, his favourite character from Slam Dunk, seems to be reflected in Watanabe. An extremely likeable, even-keeled guy with a million-watt smile that can light up a room, the similarities are there.

But as much as Watanabe liked Sendoh, their games aren’t similar. No, if we’re using characters from Slam Dunk as comps, then Watanabe would be more like the main character of the series — Shohoku forward Hanamichi Sakuragi, a hard-working, defence-first forward with a budding offensive game that continues to grow as the series progresses.

This should all sound very familiar if you’ve been following Watanabe, who has made the incredible leap from an Exhibit 10 signing just before training camp started to, on April 19, .

“We thought he deserved it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of Watanabe’s deal. “We had the roster spot to do it with, he’s been a good pro, a good player, and he’s working hard. And I think – again, I don’t want to misspeak here – but I would say that he’s certainly under consideration to be part of this team going forward. And if he can keep getting better there’s a spot for him to earn and continue to get minutes and all of those kind of things, and that’s what we’re all about.”

Though a relatively unknown player when the season first started, Watanabe has since become an impact player for the Raptors. That said, given both the person and player he’s always been along the way on his journey, this is probably something we all should’ve seen coming.

Stream 150-plus marquee NBA matchups from around the league, including over 35 Toronto Raptors games. Plus, get news, highlights, analysis, select NBA Playoff matchups and the NBA Draft.

Hailing from a family with deep ties to the game of basketball — his mother, father and sister all played professionally in Japan, and his mother was a member of the Japanese women’s national team — Watanabe’s life revolved around the game, and he always had grand plans for himself.

He attended Jinsei Gakuen High School, a school known for its baseball history, in his home prefecture of Kagawa. Along the way, he helped it also become renowned for its basketball program thanks to a pair of runner-up finishes at the All-Japan High School Basketball Tournament.

But Watanabe’s ambition was far greater than his hometown or even his home country could provide. So, in 2013, Watanabe made the difficult decision to pack up his things and travel more than 11,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean to attend St. Thomas More preparatory school, a private boarding school that has produced a number of NBA players over the years.

“That was a really tough decision to make. Obviously, I couldn’t speak any English, I didn’t know anyone, so, I mean, that was really tough,” said Watanabe. “But I always wanted to play basketball in the U.S., I wanted to play at a higher level, and to be an NBA player was always my dream.”

The selection of St. Thomas More was hardly an accident. His father’s friend, Don Beck, who has coached pro basketball in Japan since 2010, recommended Watanabe to St. Thomas More head coach Jere Quinn.

Quinn said Watanabe needed some time to break out of his shell during the one year he coached him.

“I think he was kind of in awe of the level of play in our gym. I don’t think Yuta was ever in too many gyms with seven or eight Division I kids playing pickup every day, and four or five Division II kids playing pickup as well. And my job was to convince Yuta that he was good,” said Quinn. “The biggest thing the Japanese players that I’ve coached do is, historically, they acquiesce. They’re all about team, so they always work to please everybody else. One of the things that we try to get them is a little selfishness.”

Eric Paschall of the Golden State Warriors was a teammate of Watanabe’s at St. Thomas More and noticed the same thing with Watanabe.

“In high school we had to beg him to be aggressive,” said Paschall. “Like, beg him. Like, ‘Yuta, you’re talented. Go do your thing.’ And then later in the year he became more aggressive and started scoring at will.”

During that 2013–14 season at St. Thomas More, Watanabe helped them reach a 26-8 record, and earned a number of individual accolades and even the nickname “The Chosen One” from the Japan Times. But whether it was because of his quiet nature or a lack of exposure, he wasn’t hotly recruited by Division I schools, and was given just a three-star rating by most scouting services.

Luckily for Watanabe, however, James Cosgrove, head coach of Division III Trinity College and a former player and assistant coach for Quinn at St. Thomas More, was floored when he discovered Watanabe wasn’t getting offers.

“I saw Yuta when he first came over and he, obviously, was skinny, was raw, but you could just see his skill package and his desire to become good when he played,” said Cosgrove. “So I said to Jere, ‘Who’s recruiting him?’ And he goes, ‘Nobody.’ And I’m like, ‘Nobody!?’

“So I have a good friendship, relationship with Mike Lonergan, who was at [George Washington] at the time and I said to Mike, ‘You need to come over and see this kid.’ I thought they would be perfect for each other…. I know Mike was always looking for players who are maybe not the most athletic, maybe not the biggest, maybe not the strongest, but guys who really knew how to play and really had a great skill package and really had a great basketball IQ. And that’s what I saw in Yuta, and so … Mike came down and watched him and saw the same things that I saw, and scooped him up right away.”

Sign up for Raptors newsletters

Get the best of our Raptors coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

Raptors Newsletter

Please enter a valid email

Thanks for subscribing!

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

The marriage between Watanabe and George Washington would prove to be just what he needed as he went on to star for the Colonials. In his senior year in 2018, he was named Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year and was an All-Conference Third Team selection.

One of the coaches who worked extensively with Watanabe for all four years was Canadian Maurice Joseph, who was an assistant for two years before taking over as head coach. Joseph’s family is well known among the Canadian basketball scene. His brother Kris was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 2012, his cousin Devoe has enjoyed a long career playing professionally in Europe, and, of course, his cousin, Cory, has enjoyed one of the better NBA careers of any Canadian thus far.

Joseph remembers admiring the work Watanabe put in to keep up with his academics while at George Washington.

“It’s no secret when Yuta came over the language barrier was difficult for him, especially from an academic standpoint, and especially at an institution like George Washington where the academic rigours are pretty tough,” said Joseph. “He really stayed focused on what he needed to do in order to play and succeed academically. He never missed a class, never missed a tutoring session, never missed a study hall or anything like that.”

This hard work has paid for Watanabe as he’s basically fluent in English now, an impressive feat considering he came to the U.S. about eight years ago.

Comparatively, however, his learning curve on the basketball court was much less steep.

“Even though he struggled with his English early on, he never struggled with the language of basketball. He always spoke basketball really well,” said Joseph. “So whenever we had scouting reports, whenever we had film sessions, whenever we had on-court schemes that we were putting in, he was always really, really sharp with those things, because he was locked in and really, really understood schematically what we were trying to accomplish.

“So we never struggled implementing anything with him because he spoke basketball and understood basketball so incredibly well.”

This is likely the biggest reason why Watanabe has endeared himself so well to Nurse and the Raptors organization as a whole — his hoops smarts are off the charts.

At six-foot-nine with a seven-foot wingspan and incredibly quick feet, Watanabe is almost the perfect multi-position defender. And because of his great understanding of the game, the Raptors have been able to make the most of his defensive capabilities by utilizing him in a variety of defensive schemes and looks.

“That’s something that I take pride in, and I think I’m a really good defender,” said Watanabe, who spent two years in the Memphis Grizzlies’ system before landing with the Raptors. “I still think I’ve got things I’m working on, but I think so far this season I’ve been doing the job on the defensive end, and I think I really understand the team system well.”

As the Raptors have continued to put their trust in him, he’s managed to repay it with his defence and, most recently, his offensive outbursts, too. Just as Paschall and others encouraged him to do back in his St. Thomas More days, Watanabe has looked to more aggressively hunt for shots, culminating in a career-high 21-point explosion on April 16 against the Orlando Magic.

A confident Watanabe isn’t just good for Toronto, though. Looking ahead to the summer, this could potentially be massive for his native Japan, too.

The Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games will see host Japan play in the men’s basketball tournament for the first time since the 1976 Games in Montreal, and Watanabe is poised to become a huge star at the Games.

He already owns the No. 1 selling NBA jersey in Japan and, according to reporter Takeshi Shibata of Japanese media outlet, Watanabe has a profile in Japan that could rival that of baseball players Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani, tennis player Naomi Osaka, recent Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama and two-time Olympic gold medal figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu.

That’s elite company to be mentioned with, particularly for a rotational bench player, but it speaks to a popularity that’s been rising ever since he first made the senior national team at just 18 years of age.

“We went to Japan in 2016, and everywhere we went Yuta was almost like a rock star with kids running after our bus and people asking for photos and autographs,” said Joseph. “It was really unbelievable that a college player had that kind of attention in his hometown.”

At the very least, seeing players like Watanabe and Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura playing in the Olympic Games and NBA has to help the growth of the game in Japan, too.

“I would say a lot of kids choose basketball after watching Yuta and Rui play at the highest level of the basketball world,” said Shibata.

There have only ever been five Japanese NBA players in the history of the league, and just three who were born in Japan. So the idea of a Japanese player not just making it but thriving has historically seemed farfetched.

But no longer. Hachimura was the ninth-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and is enjoying a stellar sophomore season and Watanabe has managed to finally establish himself as an important rotational NBA player.

“When I was a kid I would always dream about being an NBA player. But when I would say that, people would laugh at me. Like, people would say, ‘That’s impossible. You’re Japanese,’” said Watanabe. “So hopefully me and Rui playing in the NBA will make kids feel like, ‘I can be an NBA player because Yuta’s doing it, Rui’s doing it.’ I hope a lot of kids can say, ‘I want to be an NBA player’ loud. Because that’s possible. Anything’s possible.”

Though Watanabe’s NBA journey is only just beginning, it’s already managed to inspire and motivate.

Sounds like a good concept for a comic.