With Media Day and the first day of training camp now over, the Brooklyn Nets’ fan base is able to get a glimpse on how various players fit for the upcoming 2022-23 NBA season. With stars like Ben Simmons saying he’s ready for training camp and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant’s positive outlook on the organization’s goals, the Nets new “Big Three” seems set.
Other than showcasing the team’s star players, Media Day also gives fans a chance to welcome some of the newcomers like Yuta Watanabe, who was signed as a free agent late in the summer. Last season, Watanabe averaged 4.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per contest for the Toronto Raptors. Not a big deal, but Watanabe was a fan favorite north of the border ... and remains a huge fan favorite in Japan because of his efforts. His jersey is the top seller in Japan. (The Nets were second last year but if Watanabe stays in Brooklyn, they should become Japan’s team this season.)
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 at HSS, but only one journalist.
“I’m happy to be back,” Watanabe said of Brooklyn, referring to his time as an undrafted Nets Summer League player in 2017. “I’m very grateful the Nets gave me another opportunity to play for them. I still remember the summer league when playing for this organization. I’m very happy to be back.”
Despite not having eye-popping stats, Watanabe could potentially be a valuable piece for the Nets on the defensive end. During his stint with the Raptors, the 6’9” forward had one of the NBA’s highest block percentages on the team at 3.5 percent per RaptorsHQ. With this type of paint presence, Watanabe should be able to add some shot blocking to complement the rim protection possibilities of Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe. He is also proficient at switching and not afraid to give up his body.
If people search Watanabe’s name on any social media platform, the video of Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards posterizing him will come up. It was, in some people’s minds, the dunk of the year...
But in the game of basketball, a player who is willing to risk his body in a strong defensive stand is going to be popular with his teammates and fans alike. He could become as much loved by Brooklyn as he once was in Toronto. As one Nets insider said at the time of the signing, bringing Watanabe back “should be celebrated” if only for that.
At Media Day, Watanabe spoke extensively in his native tongue with Japanese reporters about his excitement about joining the Nets and where he sees himself fitting in.
“My role is the same as when I was in the Raptors. It’s about playing with full energy and bringing energy on defense to the team. There are many players on this team who can score and there are many other players who can do various things,” Watanabe said, according to a machine translation of his comments on NBA Japan, referring to the Nets as a team “full of superstars.“
“So I think that it will be especially important for this team to be able to thoroughly carry out one’s role. I want to find out what I need to do in this team as soon as possible, and use that as my strength to become a player that the team needs.”
Actually, he will need to, since as he noted, his contract is not guaranteed. According to reports, it’s an Exhibit 10 which means that if he’s waived before Opening Night on October 19, he could wind up in Long Island with the G League Nets, just as he did in Memphis and Toronto.
“First of all, I’m really looking forward to working with this team,” he added, according to the translation. “There are so many star players, and there are other players who can play an active role in various situations, so I’ve wondered how I would play, what role I should play, and so on. When I think about such things, I’m really very excited, and I’m really looking forward to it now.
“As for how I ended up with Brooklyn, I received several offers in the same form from other teams, but it was through my agent that I felt the most passion and saw myself as needed here. After talking about it, I decided to go to Brooklyn.”
Other than blocking shots, Watanabe is a bit of a defensive rebounding gem. He ranked in the 94th percentile in that department last season per @cleantheglass. With the Nets coming in last with a 70.4 percentage rate in defensive rebounding in 2021-22, Watanabe should be able to provide some support in this area too.
Offensively, Watanabe told Japanese reporters that he wants to improve his 3-point shooting which dropped last year in Toronto.
“Also, last year, my 3-point shot percentage dropped slightly compared to the season before last, so if I can fix that and shoot with a probability of at least 40 percent, I hope the team will need me. I think I can become a great player. In that regard, it’s the same as before, but I think it’s going to be important to score open shots...
“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.”
One indication of how confident Watanabe is: he brought his new wife, Japanese TV presenter, actress and model Akiko Kuji with him to New York.