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For Theo Pinson and Yuta Watanabe, defense critical to NBA dream

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NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen watching from the sidelines, Rodions Kurucs stuck between Barcelona and Brooklyn and Juan Pablo Vaulet nursing a foot injury, Theo Pinson and Yuta Watanabe have had to step up ... and step up they have.

The two undrafted college seniors —Pinson out of North Carolina, Watanabe out of George Washington— have shone they can play with those who got the call on June 21, particularly on defense. In interviews with beat writers Greg Logan and Brian Lewis, both expressed confidence they provide solid D to a team that desperately needs it.

“I’ve got to be able to defend and not hurt the team when I come in the game,” said Pinson. That’s a big thing because I’m not going to be a starter. I’ve got to come in and show I can be valuable and get some minutes.”

“Defense is my strength in college,” said Watanabe. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got [Saturday], but I’m glad I was able to show I can play defense even at the four.”

The two are most likely hunting for one of the Nets’ two two-way contracts. Milton Doyle, one of last year’s two-ways, looks like he’ll get one of them. The Nets gave him a qualifying offer a couple of weeks ago, essentially protecting their rights as Brooklyn plans out their G-League strategy.

And Pinson already has what’s called an Exhibit 10 contract that guarantees him $50,000 and gives the Nets his G-League rights. That could be upgraded to a two-way.

Both played well in the Thunder’s blowout of the Nets on Saturday, with Pinson going for 16 points, five boards, two blocks and two steals and Watanabe had four blocks and two steals to go with 13 points and five rebounds.

The two prospects also showed off surprising aspects to their games. Pinson, not a great shooter in college, went 3-of-5 from deep and Watanabe showed some rim protection skills. Although he was the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, he won that accolade mostly for his perimeter skills.

They also showed versatility.

“At Carolina I guarded every position. It’s a blessing to be able to do that, and hopefully it translates to this level,” said Pinson. UNC Coach Roy Williams has said point guard may be his best NBA position.

“Versatility is one of my strengths,” said Watanabe who played the 2 —at 6’9”— in college. “If they want me to play 4, I’m fine with that. If I can hit shots, I’m 6’9”, long, athletic. I have no problem playing the 4.”

His coach liked what he saw from Watanabe.

“We played him at both three and four, and he was able to chase some guys around screens but also play the four,” Jacque Vaughn 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.”

For Watanabe, a native of Miki, Kagawa, Japan, an NBA roster spot would be a major achievement. He’d be the second Japanese player in the league. Yuta Tabuse had a short stint with Phoenix 15 years ago.

The Nets play the Timberwolves Monday night at 11 p.m. ET and it remains uncertain how many of the Nets drafted players —LeVert, Allen, Kurucs and Vaulet— will play, but expect Vaughn to keep giving minutes to the two guys who are battling for a roster spot.