25 August, 2023
10 September
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Yuta Watanabe: ''We're going to try to make it the best World Cup ever''

BROOKLYN (USA) - Back in November, in the earlier stages of the NBA season, Yuta Watanabe commanded the headlines. On a team that had Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons, the Japanese forward was the one that was the talk of the town for a brief moment.

"We're going to try to make it the best World Cup ever."


That's what happens when you start the season on a hot shooting streak from the beyond the arc.

"He's the best shooter in the world right now," Irving said of Watanabe who was shooting 57.1 percent from downtown at that moment, good enough to top the entire NBA.

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If you go to fact check this statistic right now, you will see that Watanabe is no longer at the top of the leaderboard in three-point percentage. That's only because he hasn't attempted enough three-pointers to qualify. Nonetheless, the 28-year-old is shooting 52.7 percent on 2.7 three-point attempts per game in 27 games - easily the highest percentage among players averaging at least 2 threes per contest.

Ah, yes. We all saw this coming.

Except we didn't.

Watanabe was a defensive ace in college at George Washington University. Prior to this NBA season, he had only been shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc on 193 attempts across 4 seasons. He wasn't allergic to three-point shooting - as they say - but he was also not pegged as a long-range shooting specialist. But when you are a smart basketball player like Watanabe, you learn to adjust and, more importantly, improve.

That's just what Yuta Watanabe does.

He's always looking for way to get better to continue play at a high level himself and at a high level of competition. This has always been confirmed ever since he was playing in Japan and seeking out the opportunity to play in the USA. Ever since he developed into one of the best defensive players in college basketball during his time at George Washington. Ever since he had to prove himself time and again to get opportunities with the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, and Brooklyn Nets.

And each time he seemed to have stepped up to another level, he was already looking ahead to the next step which shouldn't be surprising coming from someone who looks up to the late Kobe Bryant.

"I have still got a lot of work to do. I still have got to get better. I still have to improve myself," Watanabe had said when he was still with the Raptors in 2021 via The Athletic. "The work I've been putting in is slowly paying off. I've started proving that I belong in this league."

While the three-point shooting is still a new part of his game, if you had been paying close enough attention with the national team, it's something that he had been gradually working on.

Playing for Japan at the World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers, Watanabe attempted only 5 three-pointers in the two games that he played. At the World Cup itself in China, he attempted 13 three-pointers in 5 games, with a success rate of 15.4 percent.

Then came the shift.

Watanabe attempted 15 three-pointers at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, this time in just 3 games and doubling his conversion rate to 33.3 percent. Later at the Asia Cup in 2022, Watanabe made a three-pointer in all 4 games he played in for a total of 17 attempts.

It isn't a direct correlation between Watanabe's evolution into an effective three-point shooter and playing with the Japan national team, but it certainly did help to an extent.

"I had a complete different role in the national team [at the Asia Cup] than [with the Nets] but definitely playing for the national team in the summer helped in the way the national team plays like plays fast," Watanabe said exclusively to FIBA.

Japan have been adjusting their style of play ever since the Tokyo Olympics with coach Tom Hovasse taking over the reigns as the head coach. To illustrate Watanabe's point on the up-tempo pace Japan are playing, Japan went from ranking among the bottom in three-point shooting at World Cup 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics to attempting the most three-pointers at Asia Cup 2022.

"Basically that's what I've been doing with [the Nets] now. But yeah, playing with the national team gave me a lot of confidence."

The benefits goes both ways as well.

"Playing this role right now here [with the Nets] will help me when I go back to the national team this summer, it's been great."

By "this summer", Watanabe is referring to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 which will be hosted in Japan as well as in the Philippines and Indonesia.

"I'm super excited," said Watanabe. "Especially for me, last summer we had the Olympics in Japan, but without any fans. So it's going to mean a lot for me that I'm going to play in front of a lot of Japanese fans and especially in front of my family and friends."

Because they have the opportunity to play a part of the World Cup at home, Watanabe and Akatsuki Japan will certainly put all of their best efforts into each and every game.

"We're going to try to make it the best World Cup ever," he added. "Like I said I'm looking forward to it. I know the last World Cup in China, we lost all of our games so it's going to be a great opportunity for us to show how much we've gotten better and I think we're ready."

After some heart-aching campaigns, the 2.06M (6'9") small forward is hoping that the pieces will continue to fall into place when the main event begins.

And Watanabe has been heavily committed to make sure that he will be as ready as possible for World Cup tipoff time. So committed, as a matter of fact, that he wanted to make sure that he was familiar with the system and his teammates by playing at the Asia Cup last summer… even if he didn't have to.

"[Playing for the national team] means a lot to me. They told me that I didn't have to play [last] summer," he said. "But I wanted to play. First, obviously because we got the new coach, new system, everything. So I told them I'm going to play there."

"I'm glad that I did because I got to know the new coaching staff and a lot of the younger guys, because we brought a lot of the younger guys to the Asia Cup. I met a lot of the younger guys and they were really good so I'm glad that I did that."

Those "younger guys" included promising point guard Yuki Kawamura and spitfire sharpshooter Keisei Tominaga, both of whom have a good chance to be on the final World Cup roster later this year. Getting the chance to play on the senior national team at an early stage and to be able to learn from big brother Yuta is something that will certainly help them in the long run.

Take it from the guy who made his senior national team appearance when he was 18-years-old at Asia Cup 2013.

"It's important for younger guys to experience international games at a young age," said Watanabe.

"Like I'm 28 now but I started with the national team at like when I was 18-19 years old. It's really important for them to have that experience and now I understand how hard it is to win in those international games. They're going to be very good in a few years, I want them to keep going."

Yuta Watanabe is like that. Despite being at the point where he's still trying to get better and shine among the world's best, he's always has the next generation in the back of his mind. He knows that he shoulders a large part of the responsibility for paving the way for the next wave of Japanese ballers.

For him, the path to being where he is now was not easy.

"There was a time I thought I might not belong to [the NBA]," he said, as per HoopsHype. "My family, friends, teammates, and coaching staff always encouraged me to keep my head up."

Now that he's made it this far, he's more focused than ever to keep on going as he is not only playing for himself - but playing as a representation of Japan basketball.

"I'm really proud of myself," said Watanabe. "It means a lot to me and it's important for me to continue to do it because I want the younger guys to see me and Rui playing in the NBA. I want them to feel like okay, we can be an NBA player, too. "

"When I was a kid, people were always like you are Japanese, it's not possible."

"I want to change how the players think about themselves so its important for us to represent the country."

Hopefully, those young Japanese ballers that will be watching Watanabe at the World Cup in Japan this year will soon be following his footsteps.