Raptors' sparkplug hopes for a basketball boom in Japan

It was around the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter on Sunday night in Tampa and the Raptors were in a spot that hasn’t always been comfortable this season. 

The Magic had chipped into a 16-point Raptors lead, getting it down to eight. Nikola Vucevic cut through the paint and caught the ball with his back to the basket, turned and thought he had an easy two in front of him. Before he could make it a two-possession game, Yuta Watanabe came into the picture. 

The first-year Raptor met Vucevic at the rim, swatting the ball back to Pascal Siakam, who finished a fast break at the other end of the floor. With a double-digit lead intact, the Raptors didn’t look back and rolled to a 13-point win. 

If you’ve watched closely, Watanabe has become synonymous with spark plays whenever he’s gotten on the floor. His numbers are modest -- 3.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and just under a block per in 12.7 minutes per -- but he’s slowly playing his way into the Raptors’ rotation. He’s relentless on defence and completely unafraid of throwing his body into the fray to help his team. That hustle has opened the door to more minutes and with that, his offensive contributions have grown. 

After a season-best 12 points in 24 minutes in the Raps’ loss to Sacramento on Friday, Watanabe had 11 points and three blocks in the Sunday win over the Magic. 

“He’s just constantly in motion, which is really good, really helps our offence. In those roles (the job is to) play hard and limit mistakes. He just doesn't make many mistakes,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Watanabe after the Sunday win.  

“That's just effort, that's not anything but that. He's a bit of an unknown yet, so he still finds himself all alone out there in the corner. He's got a nice shooting stroke. He's growing a little bit, playing solid but he's been really solid for the most part all year.” 

With every fist-pump on a made basket or hustle play, Watanabe is showing why that spark-off-the-bench player can so quickly become a fan favourite. While Raptors fans are just getting to know him, he’s had a loyal following for years in his native Japan that goes back to his college days at George Washington University, even if he’s something of a rarity. 

“A lot of the great athletes in Japan go on to play baseball or soccer. Basketball’s probably not the first choice when they go looking into playing in the pros,” said Zac Ikuma, who produces Japanese-specific content for the Washington Wizards’ site. A bilingual broadcast journalist that’s worked in Canada, the U.S. and Japan, Ikuma was hired by the Wizards after the team selected Japan’s Rui Hachimura ninth overall in the 2019 Draft. 

“(Basketball) was always kind of a distant league. People in Japan have gotten used to a lot of their great ball players going to the Majors and playing in North America, but that’s not been the case with the NBA,” he said. 

Ikuma said that while Hachimura is the higher-profile player with Japanese fans, Watanabe had been viewed a little more cautiously because of his career path. He was undrafted and spent the last two seasons in Memphis on a two-way deal with the Grizzlies before winning a spot on the Raptors team off a training camp invite in the fall. Playing on a two-way deal with the Raptors, the 26-year-old is showing that he can play in the NBA. 

“I would say that the mainstream media has always kept tabs on pro elite Japanese athletes who are playing abroad at the highest level,” Ikuma said. 

“It's not just, ‘Yuta, he suited up today and he played some garbage time.’ Now it’s, ‘He's trying to get rotation minutes; he's getting the rotation minutes and playing 20-plus minutes, scoring 10 points; another efficient game, or another high-energy hustle game.’ That kind of thing is being covered in Japan now. So I guess because of that extra playing time he's gotten in his bigger role, he's finally getting that airtime in Japan.” 

With Watanabe and Hachimura just the second and third Japanese players in the NBA, respectively, they’re torchbearers for a game that’s still growing in their homeland. 

“I think that helps basketball in Japan a lot,” Watanabe said in early January about he and Hachimura’s impact on the game. 

“I hope a lot of kids will play in the NBA...just like me and Rui. I think this is great for us. I still have to do a better job. I mean, obviously Rui’s been great. I think I can do a better job. More people will watch basketball and then basketball gets bigger. I’ve got a lot of work to do.” 

This should feel familiar for Canadian basketball fans, who yearned for more of their game on TV in a country that long had its passions tied to hockey and baseball. 

Between 1991 and 2010 there were just eight Canadians chosen in the NBA Draft. Two important things happened In that time. Vince Carter had his stay with the Raptors (1998 to 2004) and Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006. Their influence on Canadian players was reflected in 23 of them being chosen in the draft in consecutive years between 2011 and 2019. Seventeen Canadians in total were on NBA rosters when this season tipped off in December. 

It’s still the early days of Japan’s basketball growth, but Ikuma sees the potential for a generation of players to be similarly reached. He’s hopeful that the Olympics can take place this year in Tokyo, thinking about what impact that could have on Japanese kids seeing their nation on the hardwood against the best in the world. He sees Hachimura as Japan’s Steve Nash and thinks fans can easily get behind Watanabe’s high-energy style of play. 

“It's very possible that eight years from now, we might see a bigger influx, a big pool of Japanese players that might actually be playing at a high level, because of Yuta and Rui,” Ikuma said, adding that a successful point guard, someone more in-line with the average height in Japan, could make basketball seem like more of a feasible option. 

As Watanabe sees more time on the court and continues to make an impact for the Raptors, the basketball-loving eyes in Japan aren’t just looking for Hachimura highlights.

“(Among) the more invested fans, there's constant chatter about is (Watanabe) going to be upgraded to a regular NBA contract?” Ikuma said. 

“And if so, I mean, Japan is going to go crazy. They've been wishing for that. He's worked so hard and it's been all small, incremental steps. It’s not like Rui who boom, gets drafted and now he’s a starter. With Yuta it's been a long road to get here. 

“He's such a nice guy, everyone's rooting for him and so when he finally does -- if and when he gets that non-two-way contract -- I mean, Japan is going to go nuts, I'm sure.”