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Yuta Watanabe likely to make Nets even bigger in Japan

Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

With Yuta Watanabe now seemingly secure on the Nets roster, expect Brooklyn to be an even bigger hit in Japan than in the past ... and they were already No. 2 behind Watanabe’s Raptors in jersey sales last year and Watanabe the clear No. 1 among all NBA players, ahead of Steph Curry.

Watanabe is actually one of two Japanese-born players on the Nets. Cam Thomas was born in a U.S. military hospital in Yokosuka where his mother was stationed at the time. But Thomas moved back to the U.S., specifically, the tidewater region of Virginia. Watanabe is among the most popular athletes in Japan, playing on the national team, connecting regularly with his countrymen in Japanese on social media where he has hundreds of thousands of followers.

At Media Day and Day 1 of camp, Japanese media was on hand in large numbers. There were about 15 journalists — TV and print representing some of Japan’s biggest media brands — on hand at HSS Training Center. Compare that to Australia which had three Aussie-born players on the HSS courts, but only one journalist.

Watanabe spoke extensively in his native tongue with the reporters about his excitement joining the Nets and where he sees himself fitting in. Then, on Monday, he celebrated making the roster, asking all his Japanese followers — 195,000 on Twitter and 245,000 on Instagram — to “Please support the Nets this season!!”

The timing for the Nets and Watanabe is good. His time in the NBA’s biggest media market comes just as the league is trying to boost its presence in Japan.

Among Asia’s big economies, the NBA’s reach is most felt in Philippines. It is, as Joel Rush writing for Forbes Sports noted, the numbers for the archipelago are far and away the best not just in Asia but anywhere outside the U.S. Rush wrote, “A full 63% of people in the Philippines are interested in the NBA, by far the highest percentage of any country outside the United States, and more than double the 30% of interest in Canada, which has had one or more teams in the league since 1995. And at 38%, China has the second-highest level of interest.”

But Japan, with its huge economy, is barely seen on the NBA landscape. A comparatively low six percent of people consider professional basketball to be their favorite sport, Rush wrote. The NBA hopes to maintain its dominance in China and the Philippines while raising awareness — and revenues — in Japan.

In preseason, the Warriors and Wizards (who feature the NBA’s other Japanese player, Rui Hachimura) played two games in Saitama, not far from Tokyo, selling out its 36,500-seat “super arena.”

“The goal of these games is to deepen our connection with Japanese fans,” NBA Asia Managing Director Ramez Sheikh told Boardroom’s Anthony Puccio at the time. “International games not only allow us to bring the excitement of the NBA to fans who may never have had the opportunity to attend an NBA game, but partners, media, and celebrities look forward to these games.”

Sheikh also told Pooch that the interest has to be driven by homegrown players like Watanabe and Hachimura if things are going to improve. On Sunday night, NBA Japan tweeted out video of Watanabe...

How much time will Watanabe get with the Nets? He played well in preseason, showing off his typically strong defense along with an improved 3-point shot, going 5-of-10. Overall, he averaged 5.8 points in 15 minutes per game.

Steve Nash thinks he could see a lot of minutes, telling reporters Sunday that the 6’9” forward can play with “any group” of players and praised his feel for the game. A team insider went further when the Nets signed Watanabe, saying it should be “celebrated.”

In his comments to Japanese reporters on Media Day, Watanabe said he believed he can contribute. “I don’t think it’s going to be that easy again this year, but I think if I do my job well, I’ll be able to get good results. It’s tough, but I hope I can enjoy it and get on with it.”

If he does, he’ll not only help the Nets win. It could make them even more of Japan’s team.