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Yuta Watanabe’s journey from Japan to NBA

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NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Minnesota Timberwolves Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Yuta Watanabe will never be Jeremy Lin. And now the idea of the Nets as dream team for Asians and Asian-Americans isn’t going to happen either. Lin, the only NBA player of Asian heritage has left the building.

Still, the 6’9” swingman from Miki in Kagawa prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku island has his own dream, making an NBA team, on his own, as Candace Buckner of the Washington Post writes Friday, He is, after all, “the Chosen One.”

“He says he’ll never give up,” longtime fan So Seyama told Buckner, closing his eyes and pumping his fist, “until he’ll be an NBA player. I already believe in him.”

Watanabe has already made progress, showing his skillset —surprising in many ways— during the Nets summer league. Going into Friday’s game vs. the Pacers, the 23-year-old Watanabe averaged 9.8 points on 40.6 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds. He also played tough defense and showed off some athleticism as he blocked shots and protected the rim.

His Japanese fans believed they were witnessing history.

“We’re big fans, and it’s really important for him to be the second Japanese NBA player,” says Ayumi Koyama, who spent about $1,000 to travel from Washington to Vegas for Watanabe’s games.

Second to another young player named Yuta ... Yuta Tabuse, a guard who played a few games for Phoenix back in 2004. But Tabuse was a foot shorter than Watanabe and wasn’t viewed as a real prospect. (The Knicks had a Japanese American player, Wit Misaka, who went from a World War II internment camp to the Garden in the late 1940’s.)

Watanabe recalls watching Tabuse play in a recorded game ... and his reaction.

“I was watching TV, and I was screaming. I got so excited. That was like a great moment for me,” Watanabe told Buckner. “With him being the first Japanese player ever to step on an NBA court, it’s amazing. . . . I feel like I want to be like him. I just want to be like an NBA player like him.”

Watanabe played four years at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, winning the Atlantic-10 defensive player of the year last season. It was that defense —and his ability to play multiple positions — that attracted the Nets interest.

“Baseball is the biggest sport in Japan, then soccer, and basketball is . . .” Watanabe says, lowering his large hand to the tablecloth to signify how far down the game’s popularity is, at least in his view. “People don’t really care about basketball.”

Not quite. After every game in the Summer League, Watanabe is surrounded by Japanese media, doing interviews in Japanese. He also has nearly 40,000 Twitter followers.

Will he make it? His Summer League coach has had encouraging words about his game.

“We played him at both three and four, and he was able to chase some guys around screens but also play the four,” Vaughn, Kenny Atkinson’s lead assistant said. “Overall, another good day for him.

“You see weak-side blocks and the ability to block out also, those little things. You see instinctively he knows where to be. He has a toughness to him . . . If he can shoot the basketball with his size, that’s a good combination.”

What’s next for Watanabe? He’s likely to get a training camp invite, maybe a two-way deal. If he does, he will have a huge following 13 hours ahead.