Japan Watching as Watanabe Chases NBA Dream

Yuta Watanabe is far from a household name in America. In fact, only the most ardent college basketball fans might know the 6-9 guard, who spent four years in relative anonymity playing for a George Washington team that never finished better than fifth in the Atlantic 10.

But in his home country of Japan, Watanabe is a really big deal. How big?

His nickname is "The Chosen One."

When he worked out for the Wizards last month, "a swath of reporters" from Japan were on hand to track his every move.

There were no Japanese reporters present at his pre-draft workout for the Pacers on Wednesday morning, but make no mistake, they are watching him closely.

Watanabe is attempting to become just the second Japanese-born player in NBA history. 5-9 point guard Yuta Tabuse was the first, though he appeared in just four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

"A lot of people care about what I'm doing," Watanabe said on Wednesday. "And hopefully I can make them happy."

While he likely won't be a first-round pick in next week's NBA Draft, Watanabe has the physical tools to make it in the NBA.

At the recent NBA Global Camp, he was measured at 6-9 with a 6-10 wingspan and recorded a 36.5-inch vertical jump.

Despite his size, Watanabe played primarily the guard position in college. He averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game as a senior, while shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range and 80.7 percent from the free throw line.

His size and athleticism allowed him to be a menace on the defensive end and he was voted the Atlantic 10's Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

With those measurables, Watanabe would seem to have all the tools to succeed in the modern NBA, which places a high priority on players who can knock down shots and guard multiple positions.

"My strength is my versatility, both offensively and defensively," Watanabe said Wednesday. "I can dribble, I can shoot, I can pass. On the defensive end, I can guard 1-4."

Still, Watanabe admitted that he must get stronger to be able to play heavy minutes in the NBA. He weighed in at just 191.6 pounds at the NBA Global Camp.

Watanabe has represented his home country in international competition for a number of years, including Olympic qualifying in the summer of 2016. But four years ago, he made a bold decision to travel across the Pacific Ocean and enroll in college. He was just the fourth Japanese-born student athlete to play NCAA Division I men's basketball, according to George Washington athletics.

"When I came here, I couldn't speak any English," Watanabe said. "That was challenging, but I enjoyed the last four years. As a person (and) as a player, I think I developed a lot."

Watanabe is hopeful that his experience playing against NCAA competition has made him better prepared to play in the NBA. He has followed the league for years and lists Kobe Bryant as one of his basketball idols.

"The NBA has been my dream since I was a kid," he said. "...I'm going to do whatever it takes and we'll see what happens."

Jordan Barnett, Quentin Snider, and Jae'Sean Tate

Missouri's Jordan Barnett (left), Louisville's Quentin Snider (middle), and Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate (right) all worked out for the Pacers on Wednesday.

Four-Year Players Fill Out Wednesday's Workout

Wednesday's workout was the fourth one the Pacers have hosted this year, but the first in which none of the prospects in attendance turned pro early. In part because of that, none of the six players is expected to be a first-round pick and most will likely go undrafted, though most should get the chance to play for an NBA team in the Las Vegas Summer League next month.

Former Indiana guard Robert Johnson got most of the media attention on Wednesday (Pacers.com's Mark Montieth chronicled his story), but three other players had at least loose ties to the area.

Missouri forward Jordan Barnett, Louisville point guard Quentin Snider, and Ohio State swingman Jae'Sean Tate all grew up within driving distance of Indianapolis. Barnett is from St. Louis, Snider hails from Louisville, and Tate is from Pickerington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.

Barnett, who started his college career at Texas in the same recruiting class as Pacers center Myles Turner, said he has attended a few games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse over the years.

Tate, meanwhile, has been based out of Indianapolis for the past few months, training with Joey Burton — who works with Pacers forward Glenn Robinson III and other NBA players and prospects — in Zionsville.

Burton has been helping Tate work on his shooting. The 6-4, 230-pound player made just 36-of-130 3-point attempts (27.7 percent) during his four seasons at Ohio State. Tate said Burton "changed my form a little bit," allowing him to hopefully show an improved stroke to NBA scouts.

Tate is a unique prospect because while he projects as a guard in the NBA, he played primarily in the post in college, battling with bigger players. While he probably won't be able to man the power forward spot in the NBA, he does believe that the experience of battling against bigger guys could help him at the next level.

"I've always been undersized, even since I was little," Tate said. "I think that's where the chip on my shoulder comes from. I never back down from a challenge. I like to embrace being a smaller guy."

Ohio State underwent a coaching change heading into Tate's senior year, with former Butler coach Chris Holtmann replacing longtime Buckeyes coach Thad Matta. The program made a massive turnaround, improving from 7-11 in Big Ten play in 2016-17 to 15-3 last season, when they tied for second place in the conference and returned to the NCAA Tournament.

Tate said that turnaround "meant everything" to him. He grew up an Ohio State fan and his father, Jermaine, played for the Buckeyes from 1995-97.

As a senior, Tate averaged 12.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game while posting an impressive .557 field goal percentage. Just as importantly, he was the emotional leader of the team, someone who his teammates and coaches referred to as "the heart and soul" of the program.

Tate endeared himself to fans by playing with relentless energy, something he knows can translate to the pro game.

"I think any team needs a guy who brings energy," he said. "There's going to be ups and downs in games. Throughout my career, I've always been a guy to give a spark to a team when they need it."

Barnett took a little longer to find his footing in college. The 6-7 forward played sparingly in his year and a half at Texas before deciding to transfer to Missouri midway through his sophomore year. Barnett was able to play the second semester of the 2016-17 season, but his first full season of college basketball as a regular rotation player didn't come until his senior season.

He was a productive player for Missouri, averaging 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season. While he struggled with his outside shot as a junior, shooting just 30 percent from 3-point range on 120 attempts, Barnett was much more effective as a senior, when he posted a .414 3-point percentage and .890 free throw percentage.

Though his offensive game was limited to primarily spotting up as a catch-and-shoot player, Barnett believes he has the skill set to fit well in the NBA.

"The biggest thing I'm trying to showcase is really my athleticism and shooting ability," he said Wednesday. "In this league right now, I'd probably be a '3-and-D' kind of guy...I'm 6-7, pretty long, pretty athletic."

There is certainly a place for a wing who can guard multiple positions and knock down open shots in the current NBA game, but Barnett will need to distinguish himself from a slew of other similar candidates in this year's draft class.

He considers himself a bit of a late bloomer, and is hopeful that his improvement over the last year and his underrated athleticism get scouts' attention.

"I felt much better and much more confident as a stopper my senior year than I did my junior year," he said. "(It was) just an overall boost to my game and skill set, which I think is getting me noticed by a lot of my teams here."

Shooting is also a strength for Snider, who topped 1,000 career points over his four years at Louisville. The 6-2 point guard shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore, 37.3 percent as a junior, and 41.6 percent as a senior. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.0 assists per game in his final year on campus.

"I can shoot the ball and come off pick-and-rolls and find the open man," Snider said. "I'm a point guard, so just trying to get my teammates better, that's the main thing."

A smaller guard and not someone who will test off the charts athletically, Snider faces an uphill battle trying to make an NBA roster, but he has all the intangibles to enjoy a lengthy professional career, even if that comes in the G League or overseas.

Snider was a steady presence throughout his four years at Louisville, including a tumultuous final season that saw legendary coach Rick Pitino forced to resign amid an FBI investigation into illegal recruiting practices.

"It was basically a team (decision)," Snider said. "Our sanctuary was the basketball court. We tried not to worry about that...we just ignored it and kept playing."

Foster Gets Second Workout

The sixth and final player at Wednesday's workout was Creighton guard Marcus Foster. It was the second workout at the St. Vincent Center in less than a week for Foster, who was part of the first workout group last Thursday.

That could or could not mean anything. The Pacers have worked out a few players multiple times in recent years.

One example is Solomon Hill, who Indiana wound up taking with the 23rd overall pick in 2013.

Last year, they worked out Miami guard Davon Reed twice, but did not take him in the draft. Reed went to Phoenix with the 32nd pick, sandwiched between Indiana's two selections at 18 (where they took TJ Leaf) and 47 (where they took Ike Anigbogu).