Watanabe drives toward role as shooting star

AP Photo / Nick Wass
Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe chases the ball against Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, in Washington. The Nets won.

The Brooklyn Nets started off this season with enough drama to inspire a seedy original series on a fledging new streaming service, but Yuta Watanabe has helped turn the spotlight back where it belongs, onto the court.

The fifth-year swingman, who kick-started his path toward an NBA career by leaving Japan to play a year in high school followed by four years at a Division I college, is lighting it up in 3-point shooting percentage at 53.3% (although his attempts are too few to qualify among league leaders).

He has been efficient enough on both of ends of the court to earn a career-high in minutes at nearly 20 a game off the bench, and because of that, his scoring average has just about doubled to 8.0 per game.

His rise has contributed to Brooklyn’s eight-game winning streak that has the Nets and the basketball world now fixated on their stats and results and not so much on the drama.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This all comes in the aftermath of a season’s worth of off-court issues early on that have been nothing short of chaos:

■Brooklyn superstar Kevin Durant, one of the faces of the league, asked for a trade in the offseason.

■The team dumped coach Steve Nash amid a turbulent 2-5 start, pushing assistant Jacque Vaughn up the ladder and into the top position on the bench.

■Kyrie Irving has barged into headlines for myriad non-basketball matters — recently earning him a suspension after the league deemed a number of his statements and actions anti-Semitic.

■And there’s also Ben Simmons, a hot-topic player who has had his ups and downs on the offensive side as well as issues with injuries and mental health that keep feeding the tenacious New York media.

Those are just some of the distractions. But Watanabe, a free-agent offseason pickup, has coaches rethinking strategies because of his early breakout. The lefty-shooter is hitting big shots and helping to close out games by taking advantage of sagging defenders because of Durant and Irving, a duo that owns a combined three NBA titles.

“I’ve been taking good shots because of KD and Kyrie,” Watanabe said in a telephone interview with The Japan News early on Wednesday morning.

“They are like gravity. When they drive, the defense collapses. I’m always wide open, just making those shots. So it’s simple basketball.”

The wide-open spaces, advanced metrics say especially on the corner 3s, have helped Watanabe settle into a role as a sharpshooter.

“I just fit in, tying to do what I’ve been doing since Day 1 — just play hard, play defense, don’t force anything and just play smart,” he said.

And Watanabe, who has seemingly sped up his shooting motion, hasn’t had to force much as a catch-and-shoot marksman who is picking up a lot from playing alongside perennial All-Stars like Durant and Irving.

“They are obviously great players,” the 28-year-old said of the Nets’ big duo. “There’s a lot things to learn from them.

“The first day I realized how hard they work. It’s just crazy — they’ve been in the league for like more than 10 years, playing 40 minutes a night. And they show up to the gym and they are like the hardest workers in the gym. It’s why they are in the league for a long time and they are legends.”

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, Watanabe went to Kagawa Prefecture at 4 and as a child, he idolized late Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.

Both his parents played basketball in Japan at high levels and supported his path to the United States to shoot for the NBA.

A few bricks have littered the road to Brooklyn for Watanabe, though. He wasn’t drafted out of George Washington University, at which he was a lauded as a defensive standout with decent shooting ability. So the 203-centimeter, 97-kilogram player went undrafted and had to struggle to find a place on a roster.

He first signed a two-way deal with the Memphis Grizzlies for the 2018-19 season and subsequently became only the second Japanese-born player to appear in an NBA game after Yuta Tabuse.

Watanabe then spent two more seasons with the Toronto Raptors before coming to the Nets as a training camp invitee this year with his eyes purely focused on a roster spot.

“My goal was to make the team first,” Watanabe said. “I was competing for the final spot. So now, it’s kind of surprising how much I’ve been playing — I wasn’t expecting to play this much.”

And his ability to take and make clutch shots has him living a dream.

“I’m not going to lie, it feels these are the best moments of my life. I can’t remember the last time I felt joy like this,” he said.

And Watanabe is starting to change the image of Asian players in the NBA by bringing a little personality to the court. He drained a late 3-pointer against the Raptors on Dec. 16 in Toronto and pointed to his left arm, a gesture indicating he has ice in his veins as a cold-blooded shooter.

“I feel like I’m a typical Japanese — very shy and super humble,” he said. “But when you step on the court, you’ve got to have swagger. It’s not like something I do on purpose, it just happens when I step on the court. I don’t even think about it.”

The swag is certainly fit for a hit show in Brooklyn, if not the next upstart streaming service.