Photo Credit: Samson Folk, Raptors Republic
Yuta Watanabe has captured the attention of basketball fans miles away from Toronto. Yuta-mania has taken over the team with his infectious style of play and his incredible story of making it to the NBA. With his perseverance through the challenges of coming to a brand-new country, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, Watanabe has earned his way to becoming a prominent two-way role player for the Toronto Raptors. The inspirational story of Yuta Watanabe has a cultural impact that has won the hearts of teammates and fans alike. From growing up playing basketball in Japan to cementing his role in the Raptors’ rotation, he has certainly lived up to becoming Japan’s “Chosen One”, a nickname he was given by the Japan Times, who knew he was destined for greatness.
Basketball has been in Watanabe’s blood since he was born. His family has deep roots in basketball; his father played professionally in the Japanese Basketball League with the Kumagai Gumi Bruins while his mother played for the Chanson V-Magic and the Japan women’s national team. Inspired by his parents, Yuta wanted to follow in their footsteps and one day play in the NBA. After years of dedication and support from his family, he made the decision to pursue his dream in the United States. In his high school senior year he transferred from his school Jinsei Gakuen in Kagawa to St.Thomas More Preparatory School in Oakdale, Connecticut to have a better opportunity to be scouted.
Watanabe was recognized as a three-star recruit coming out of high school, known for his hustle and defensive ability. He became the first Japanese-born player to be given an NCAA Division 1 scholarship when he committed to George Washington University in 2014. Watanabe grew his defensive game and by his senior year, he was named the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year and made the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team. Despite these accolades and declaring for the NBA Draft in 2018, Watanabe went undrafted.
This did not stop him as he continued to chase his dream. Watanabe signed a summer league contract with Brooklyn before ultimately signing with Memphis on a two-way contract. He spent the majority of his time with Memphis in the G-League, refining his game and continuing to improve. In the G-League, Watanabe averaged 17.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.0 block in 32.7 minutes while shooting 54.6 percent from the field. All the work Yuta committed to over two years finally paid off in the 2020 season when he impressed the Toronto Raptors in preseason training camp. He signed a two-way deal with the Raptors and was able to find a spot on the roster, never looking back at the G-League.
Watanabe fits right in with the Raptors organization and has embraced his role in the lineup. His hustle and two way ability match perfectly with the Raptors’ defensive focus and does not go unnoticed by coaches and teammates. Providing that spark off the bench, Watanabe recorded a career-high 21 points against the Orlando Magic on April 16th. Just three days later, his dream finally came true as he signed a full-time standard NBA contract.
Watanabe joins Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura as one of the only two Japanese-born players currently in the NBA. These players both add representation to the NBA that has not had a Japanese player since Yuta Tabuse with the Phoenix Suns in 2004. With each player’s success and development in North America and the creation of the Japanese professional B. League in 2015, basketball has slowly begun to gain popularity among Japanese youth. In fact, Watanabe has the top selling jersey in Japan right now, helping the Raptors make their first appearance on NBA merchandise sales list in Japan.
With hopes that the Raptors will be back home in Toronto next season, fans will have the chance to welcome Watanabe in the city. Toronto is a city known for its multiculturalism and diversity. The progressive impact the Raptors have created by signing an inspiring player like Yuta only grows the game of basketball among the Japanese community on and off the court. It will be exciting to see Watanabe develop his game with the Raptors over the coming years while also inspiring a new generation of basketball for youth not just in Toronto, but around the globe.