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Yuta Watanabe’s Brooklyn journey: From Exhibit 10 to fan favorite

Memphis Grizzlies v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Nets signed Yuta Watanabe to an Exhibit 10 contract, the then 27-year-old warned his huge fan base, with its chapters in Tokyo, Memphis and Toronto, that it was only a training camp contract and urged them to be patient. He promised, “I’ll do my best again.”

Indeed, he has.

Watanabe, the 6’9” wing who we’ve learned can play a little 5, is Brooklyn’s darling less than 20 games into the season as well as the NBA’s leader in 3-point shooting at 57.1%. And in the last four games, Watanabe has been on a tear, averaging 13.0 points while shooting 20-of-32 (62.5%) overall, 12-of-23 from deep (52.2%) and 6-of-7 from the stripe (85.7%.) He’s averaged 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists as well, all in 24 minutes. He also gained a very excited new fan: Kevin Durant.

“He’s playing great,” Durant said after the Memphis win. “We love his energy. He’s hitting big shots for us. So you always get excited for your teammates, especially guys who come in and don’t necessarily have a guaranteed spot on the team but work their way into the rotation and put their imprint on the game from Day 1.

“So I’m excited for him, and at this point I think we should expect that he’ll go out there and play good basketball. I’m not saying he’s going to make every shot and shoot 70 percent from the floor for the rest of the year, but he’s playing solid ball on both ends of the floor. But we expect that from him now.”

Joe Harris who knows something about shooting, put it more succinctly: “He’s definitely got a flamethrower right now.”

The 3-point shooting, of course, is the big surprise. Didn’t have that on your Nets BINGO card, did you?. Indeed, before the season, Watanabe said he hoped to get his 3-point percentage up to 40. That now seems like an easy target.

“Yeah, my shots are easy because of KD, Ben, those guys pushing the ball, giving me great passes,” Watanabe told The Post. “So I’ve got to appreciate them for giving me great passes. And my job is just make those open shots. So, I’m going to just keep shooting with confidence. I know I can do that.”

In fact, he’s not just leading the NBA in 3-point shooting. He’s leading it in corner three’s as well, hitting 16-of-21 from the slightly shorter distance. That’s 76.2% for the math-challenged.

Watanabe’s love of the game and engagement with the fans has made him a big favorite around Barclays Center. He got a standing ovation the other night after hitting four 3-pointers in the the Nets big fourth quarter against Memphis.

There is one downside that goes back to that Exhibit 10 signing. The Nets can’t simply tear up his non-guaranteed deal and give him more money and/or a longer deal, can’t use part of the taxpayers MLE they still have in their back pocket. He will go into next summer as an unrestricted free agent. It’s a long, long way from November to April, May or June and a lot can happen, but a lot has already happened.

In fact, Watanabe’s signing to a camp contract last September caused barely a ripple among most fans, but as one league source told NetsDaily at the time, the signing should be “celebrated.” And celebrating their good luck is what fans are doing right now. Watanabe has filled his promise to do his best.