MikeCheck: Watanabe brings vast skills, international acclaim among new faces of Grizz development pipeline
MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies’ offseason is winding down and training camp opens in a month.
The roster has been in transition, with eight new players and six departures amid a supporting cast makeover that’s taking shape. As August reaches its stretch run, Grind City Media continues its look at who’s in, who’s out and what impact the transition will have at various spots on the Grizzlies’ roster.
IN: Yuta Watanabe, 6-9, PF
Deal: Two-way (Grizzlies/Hustle) contract
NBA Summer Leagues: 9.4ppg. (41.5%FG), 4.2rpg, 1.6bpg in five games
Out: Myke Henry, 6-6, SG
Deal: Unrestricted NBA Free Agent; Signed July 23 with Israeli Premier League
Last season: 5.4ppg. (37.6%FG), 1.9rpg., 1.6spg in 20 games with Grizzlies
Henry instantly provided a shot in the arm to a wing rotation that needed some punch during a stretch of injuries when the Grizzlies signed him to a two-way contract in January. In his second game, Henry’s skill and athleticism were on full display when he dunked over Joel Embiid and scored all of his season-high 12 points in the second half of an upset win over the Sixers.
A DePaul standout who went undrafted in 2016, Henry toiled through foreign leagues and the NBA G League until he landed with the Grizzlies after general manager Chris Wallace spotted him in a showcase tournament in Canada. Henry’s size, versatility to defend multiple wing positions and ability to knock down three pointers quickly made him one of the more intriguing prospects in the Grizzlies’ development pipeline. He shot 41.3-percent from deep through his first nine games with Memphis as starter Tyreke Evans coped with injuries and was placed on the trading block before the Grizzlies reversed course. Along the way, Henry did enough in limited doses to impress coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
“The hardest art in the NBA is being a consistent threat, where you know and your coaches know and your teammates know what you’re going to give them,” Bickerstaff said during Henry’s most productive stretch last season. “There’s no doubt in our mind that we think we’ve found a piece in (Henry).”
Eventually, a numbers crunch on the wing, the team’s desire to extend playing time to other prospects and Henry’s own stretch of nagging injuries led to the Grizzlies seeking alternatives. Leg and back issues slowed Henry during the build up to summer league, and he did not participate with the team in either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas with other young prospects. On July 20, the Grizzlies released Henry and used that Two-Way spot to add Watanabe, one of the Vegas league’s most intriguing prospects.
Watanabe arrived in Memphis last week after spending the past month in Japan following an encouraging summer league performance in Las Vegas. That’s a lot of globe-trotting in a short period of time for a player who brings even more international acclaim and attention to Memphis.
I don’t want to be an NBA player because I’m Japanese. I want to be an NBA player because I’m a basketball player – just like everybody else.-- Yuta Watanabe
Much like every one of Marc Gasol’s movements in the NBA is tracked in his native Spain, Watanabe will have a Japanese following to levels the NBA has never seen. He’s essentially this league’s version of Ichiro, and that’s been the case since Watanabe first came over to the Unites States to attend a Connecticut prep school before a standout, four-year college career at George Washington University. Watanabe, whose combination of length, shot-blocking and three-point range make him a perfect development prospect for the modern NBA, was the first native of Japan to sign an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. Now, he’s trying to become only the second Japanese player to see action in an NBA game.
Check Watanabe’s Vegas league highlights here if you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about regarding last season’s Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the new face of the Grizzlies’ development program, and will bring an exciting buzz to those G League Memphis Hustle games in Southaven this season. During his time at George Washington, Watanabe was followed internationally on the levels of D.C. professional stars such as Alex Ovechkin. But Watanabe made it clear he’s far less caught up in the hype and attention he commands than he is with doing all the dirty work it takes to stick on an NBA roster.
“I’m always focused on right here, right now. I’m always staying ready for this, playing for this,” Watanabe told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month. “I don’t want to be an NBA player because I’m Japanese. I want to be an NBA player because I’m a basketball player – just like everybody else.”
Although the Grizzlies may still make another tweak or two to the roster in the coming weeks, they currently approach training camp with 16 players on full or partially guaranteed contracts, which is one above the regular-season limit. Teams can carry as many as 20 players on the roster during camp, and the Grizzlies have 19 total right now. That group includes the Two-Way contracts that Watanabe and second-year guard Kobi Simmons are under.
Watanabe projects to be a keeper. He’ll get ample opportunity to progress and learn with both the Grizzlies and under new Hustle coach Brad Jones, who steps in after Glynn Cyprien’s departure to Texas Tech. While Watanabe’s defensive prowess stood out in college and with the Nets’ summer league team, he also averaged more than 16 points in college last season and falls in line with Memphis’ other incoming rookies. One thing Watanabe, No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and second-round pick Jevon Carter all have in common? Each was named his respective conference’s defensive player of the year.
With two seasons of steady development, Watanabe could be ripe and ready to step in should the Grizzlies transition from Chandler Parsons (two years) and Omri Casspi (one year) once their contracts expire. At least one thing’s certain: Watanabe’s progress in Memphis will be tracked on a global scale.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.