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Yuta Watanabe on his fast start, his long road, Japanese heritage, and Kevin Durant, leader

Brooklyn Nets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Yuta Watanabe will miss his eighth straight game Sunday and there’s no word when he’ll be back. Still, the 6’9” 28-year-old has been a great pickup for Brooklyn. He’s shooting 55.6% from deep, 60.9% overall and playing everywhere on the court, even the 5.

Moreover, Watanabe is the face of Japan in the NBA where Adam Silver et al are pushing their product hard. Although Rui Hachimura of the Wizaards is also of Japanese heritage (and Cam Thomas was born on a US military base in Japan), it’s Watanabe’s jerseys that are the big seller back home, his social media accounts the most followed.

Mike Scotto of Hoopshype caught up with Watanabe recently to talk about his fast start, his long road, his heritage... and Kevin Durant’s leadership.

“It’s crazy,” Watanabe said of his start. “I’ve always known I could shoot, but 57 percent? That’s impossible. I’m not expecting myself to keep up that number, but I’m going to keep shooting with confidence. The reason I’m shooting well is because of KD (Kevin Durant), Ben (Simmons), and Kyrie (Irving). I’m playing with those greats. They get doubled all the time, so I’m always open, and my job is to make those wide-open shots.”

Watanabe said after being signed to an Exhibit 10 contract that he hoped to get to 40% from deep. He knew that his future was tied to improvement in his offense.

“Defensively, I always thought I was fine in Toronto,” he told Scotto. “There was a time I was getting minutes because of my defense, but my offense was a problem. I was so inconsistent with my 3-point shot. I knew if I could shoot the ball with confidence and consistency, I knew I could get more minutes. That’s what I’ve been doing now. I’m shooting very well now, but I can’t forget that I started playing minutes because of my defense, energy, work ethic, and passion.”

As evidenced on the court, KD and Watanabe have a good relationship and it’s been a big help, he says, in his game.

“He keeps telling me no matter what to keep shooting with confidence. Someone like him telling me to shoot means I better shoot. He gave me a lot of confidence,” said Watanabe. “Every time I make shots, he always reacts and is hyped and happy. That’s what keeps me going. I really appreciate his leadership.”

Watanabe said his current situation is the best moment he’s had in the NBA and notes that the journey to Brooklyn has been long and difficult and so he appreciates whatever success (The Nets initially signed Watanabe to a Summer League deal after he went undrafted and even offered him a contract, but he chose an offer from Memphis instead.)

“I’ve been through a lot of tough spots. The last four years, besides the little bit of time I was playing minutes, I was always on the bench and not playing. I’ve been in the G League for the first two years. The first year in Toronto, I was on a two-way, and the next year I was partially guaranteed. I’ve been non-guaranteed, and this year I’m still non-guaranteed. Even though I’m not playing minutes, I’ve never taken it for granted. There are a lot of people out there who want to be in the league, and it didn’t matter if I’m the 13th, 14th, or 15th man and I didn’t get minutes. I always went to the gym and worked on my game.

“When I don’t play, I always stand up and cheer for my teammates. If my minutes started going down this season, I’m not going to change that. I’m going to be there for my teammates. After the game, I’ll just want to go to the gym and work on my game.”

What’s next? As he noted, he’s on a non-guaranteed deal with the Nets which would become fully guaranteed on January 10. Assuming the Nets keep him through the end of the season, Watanabe would be an unrestricted free agent. The Nets would only have his non-Bird rights which would limit what they could pay unless they wanted to dip into whatever MLE they have next July. (And no, the Nets cannot tear up his contract in mid-season and give him a new deal. They were able to do that with Kessler Edwards because he was on a two-way deal and the rules are different for two-ways.)

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but even though my contract could get guaranteed one day or I get a multi-year contract, the way I play isn’t going to change. I’ll always play with a high level of intensity and play hard. I always play like this might be my last day in the NBA. I don’t want to take it for granted. This isn’t going to last forever. Non-guaranteed or guaranteed, the way I play won’t change,” said Watanabe.

The George Washington University alum admits there were times of doubt (and in fact when he was signed to the Exhibit 10 he warned his fans he would still have to make the final roster.)

“Yeah, I’m not going to lie. There was a time I thought I might not belong to this league. My family, friends, teammates, and coaching staff always encouraged me to keep my head up. I wouldn’t be here without those people who I’ve met on my journey. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”

As for his heritage, Watanabe, a member of the Japanese national team, thinks it’s important not just for his native country, but for those players with the ambition, like him, of playing in the NBA.

“I think it’s really important for us to represent our country. When I was growing up, and I said I wanted to be an NBA player, people were like, ‘Only one Japanese guy made it to the league, so it’s almost impossible. You can’t do that.’ I wanted to change those people’s perceptions. I wanted to change how they thought about themselves and the Japanese. I think more people started watching the NBA. I hope a lot of kids right now are starting to dream of being an NBA player.”