Yuta Watanabe back in Toronto, getting ready for 2022-23 action

Yuta Watanabe, the free agent appeared in a Japanese local TV documentary show on June 5 Japan Standard Time and acknowledged he had been back in Toronto and had already been preparing for the next season there. "I am back in Toronto and have already been working out in full swing." Watanabe addressed to Japanese audience after thanking them for congratulating his marriage to Akiko Kuji. "I will do my best to make y'all feel proud. Thank you for your continuing support."



It was Watanabe's first public exposure since he visited one of his sponsors in mid May during his breaf home coming to Japan. He was also available for media right after he got back to Tokyo in early May.


When he took time with local media members, he talked about the mindset as a free agent and reflected the season in which he was finally able to play in front of Toronto’s enthusiastic home crowd. He summarized the season and said "A lot of things happened and I experienced good and bad, some internal debates in my own mind. But in conclusion, it was a very good season." He continued "I was able to prove various things. And even though I did have a bitter feeling for not being able to earn minutes especially in the latter half of the season, now I feel confident about myself sticking in this league."


But is he going to stay in Toronto for the 2022-23 season? There are three things to talk about.

Off-season conditioning in Toronto

He was not able to play as many minutes as he and his fans wanted or expected. His season average - 4.3 points on 34.2% 3P shooting, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 11.7 minutes – is far less than he thought he was able to achieve. But the fact that he actually made the rotation after the season-opening absence until he went into quarantine says some things about his improvement. During that stint, he had two double-doubles (including his first in the NBA), five games with double figures in scoring. For the pre-protocol 14 games, he shot 38.0% from beyond the arc and averaged 7.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists.  He also showed fearlessness and the ability to protect the rim, bringing some “Get that garbage outta here” moments with nasty rejections against bigger guys.


Watanabe said that sequence helped him build a lot of self-confidence. And he is optimistic for the next season.


He said Tokyo 2020 Olympic appearance last year, where he co-captained the Japan national team, was nothing short of a great experience but also such a demanding task physically and mentally. He basically admitted that it affected his preseason condition to a certain degree. So although he is highly motivated to represent our country any time, he said he would think more deliberately about his participation in Japan national team activities this summer, especially when the biggest focus now is on the FIBA World Cup in 2023 (Part of its group phase takes place in Okinawa, Japan) and not on this year (Japan national team participates in the FIBA Asia Cup 2022 in Jakarta, Indonesia in July).

If Watanabe chooses to focus more on his own individual improvement than helping the national team this year, which looks like the case now as he works out in Toronto, chances are that he will come back with a better condition than the last year wherever he plays for. "I would like to take good care of my body. No excuse for the injury, corona and that kind of stuff this summer." he said. If it turns out that he stays with the Raptors, he will bring more energy, more versatility than he did for the 2021-22 season and possibly 40%+ 3P shooting (like he did for the 2020-21 season) to help the Raptors' 6-9 vision basketball develop to another level.


“6-9 vision fits my style”

When I asked Watanabe about coach Nick Nurse's 6-9 vision, he answered "That really fits my style of play. That's the style in which we play switching defense through 1 to 5. And I can defend both guards and bigs." But he admitted it presented a huge challenge for him to compete against almost the same type of long athletic players with almost equally great ability and energy. "As much as there were so many good things in that system for me, it was also such a tough competition where you consistently need to bring impactful results."

“Expectations from the team were higher than the last year. And it went up every time I played in the game. When you perform well, it’s like - Hey you’re now capable of doing it. Let’s raise the bar. – I needed to step up to the next level each game, which I think is something just normal as a professional club.”

When he cracked the rotation, some of their starters were inactive and the Raptors were dealing with injuries. Then Watanabe tested positive and almost at the same time others were back on the active list. It was unfortunate for Watanabe that he couldn’t play reasonably well after coming out of the protocol. And after that he was never really able to recover throughout the remainder of the season.

It seemed he was battling against the pressure. Now the same one shot means a lot more than what it used to be. “I felt like I needed to leave an impact every time in shorter minutes or I would be replaced by other players. But it’s on me. I need to respond to that kind of expectations. I need to make plays. I need to bring them the results.”

In the end, he was able to stay confident in his internal conversation. “I think I was able to show them that I have the ability to do that. And for me the thing now is how I can be consistent even when I am not in a good condition.”


He knows the system and he knows that he fits the system. And he seems not to back down from the tough competition to earn a spot in the regular rotation. It will be up to what he does during this summer and how the Raptors evaluate Watanabe's potential from it.


“I love the Raptors and the city of Toronto”

About the free agency, he expressed his honest feeling by saying “I love the Raptors. Last season, we were in Tampa. But this season, finally I was able to play in front of our enthusiastic home crowd and I really loved the city of Toronto. So that will be good if I could keep contributing there as a Raptor.”

But the reality is he has to be open for any opportunity. He is not a high salary volume free agent at this point and things are really open for both Watanabe and the Raptors. Have the Raptors seen enough of him or will they buy his potential and try to develop for another year or so? Will other teams stay quiet and leave Watanabe in the market? “At this point, nothing is clear about my future. One thing is always true. I need to keep improving during this summer.”

He referred to Fred VanVleet’s comment in which he basically said how quickly it was for him from being recognized as an underrated to an overrated. “He was right. Once you achieve certain kind of things, now you have to meet higher standards. I know those who keep achieving are the only ones that can survive and sustain the career in this league. I will keep pushing myself to be able to keep achieving higher standards”


He has the base in Toronto and now is there looking like focusing on his own improvement. How much the Raptors monitor what he does is unknown in Tokyo. But I guess they are in touch and a lot of things are being shared to each other. He knows their playing style and he's got the love for the city.


Anything can happen. But Toronto still looks like the best home town for Watanabe and he has a lot to offer for the Raptors' 2022-23 season.


Text by Takeshi Shibata


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