When Yuta Watanabe first showed up at Toronto Raptors' training camp back in late 2020 he was a longshot to make the roster. Toronto looked like a team with plenty of wing talent and some other intriguing prospects in Oshae Brissett, Paul Watson Jr, Alize Johnson, and Henry Ellenson fighting for one of the Raptors' final roster spots.
That, however, changed in a hurry. The 26-year-old Japanese wing began turning heads immediately. Just days into training camp it seemed like Raptors coach Nick Nurse had already begun taking a liking to his new hard-nosed and defensively savvy wing.
"I really like his game," Nurse said after a training camp scrimmage on December 10. "I think there’s a lot of potential and a lot of room for him to grow on this team."
What nobody — aside from Watanabe — could have imagined is just how much potential there was in that 6-foot-9, 215-pound frame. After sitting out the first three games of the regular season, Watanabe quickly began making a difference for Toronto as a high-IQ defensive stopper with some catch-and-shoot 3-point skills. Despite new NBA rules that would have allowed Toronto to keep him on a two-way contract all year, the Raptors decided to reward the emerging Watanabe with a new standard contract on April 18. By the time the season culminated Watanabe had played in 50 of Toronto's 72 games and was by far the best feel-good story of the Raptors' 2020-21 season.
"What a pleasant surprise for us," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said of Watanabe during his season-ending media availability. "Incredible kid and basketball player with such great upside. He brings such passion to the game."
To some, the best word to describe Watanabe's season would have been surprising. Prior to the year, he had played in just 33 NBA games and by his own admission had never really been given a shot to show what he could do. In Memphis, he was an afterthought and at times he said he worried if he'd ever get a chance to make an impact. But Watanabe kept working. He knew if he ever got his chance he'd make the most of it. So while it may have been surprising, as Nurse said, it was all deserving.
"He worked continually," Nurse said. "He's a really good person, tremendously hard worker, he literally loves the game, and he made progress."
The next step for Watanabe will be playing with a little more confidence. He's so unselfish that at times it was detrimental to Toronto's offensive system. After injuring his right ankle in mid-February, Watanabe saw his explosiveness and willingness to shoot fall off pretty significantly. He had been attempting two 3-pointers per game while shooting 42% from behind the arc in the nine games prior to the injury. Once the injury happened his offensive game evaporated.
"I always know that I can shoot at the high level but, I mean, definitely, it's like a mental thing," Watanabe said. "When I started not playing well, like in late February, March, my confidence went down, and that's a time I wasn't really looking for a shot or I wasn't aggressive enough."
In Watanabe's 14 games following the injury, he shot 8% from deep with fewer than one attempt per game. It allowed opposing defences to leave him completely unguarded and send more attention to Toronto's other offensive weapons.
Next season that's not going to be acceptable. Watanabe's defensive prowess should keep him on the roster, but he's going to need to hit his open catch-and-shoot looks when defences leave him unguarded next year.
This offseason is going to be a big one for Watanabe. He's no longer going to be a surprise for the organization and even though his spot on the team is quite literally not guaranteed for next year, there's going to be an expectation that he comes back having rounded out his game a little more and developed into a true 3-and-D player.
Based on how 2020-21 went that shouldn't be too difficult. Watanabe has shown a relentless desire to keep working, to keep improving, and when he arrived in training camp next season it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if he's ready to solidify himself as a valuable rotation piece for a team like Toronto eyeing another playoff berth.