Will Yuta the Shootah wind up in Utah?? An entire nation wants to know.
Yuta the Shootah, of course, is Yuta Watanabe and Utah is the venue for this year’s All-Star Weekend ... and the 3-point shooting contest .. in mid-February. Watanabe, currently the league’s best deep shooter, is telling everyone from reporters to the Brooklyn Brigade that he would be honored...
For the record, he told Doug Bearak of the Brigade “hopefully.”
And as Brian Lewis reports on Saturday, back home, there’s a lot riding on a possible selection.
He’s the so-called “Chosen One” in his native Japan, a basketball pied piper so popular in his homeland he’s not only made the Nets the country’s most followed team, but also is spurring the growth of the league itself.
“Yeah, obviously I haven’t talked to all the young guys, but I hope that’s been the case,” Watanabe told The Post.
“When I came to the U.S. when I was 18, I said I want to be one of the pioneers, and I hope a lot of our younger guys are going to follow me after seeing my success. And I think I’m having a successful season now; a lot of young guys are watching me play and I hope they look at me and [say], ‘I want to be an NBA player.’”
Watanabe is already a basketball pioneer. He was the first Japanese player to earn a basketball scholarship from an NCAA Division 1 school, George Washington.
“Before, there was no [path],” Watanabe said. “I didn’t even know how to get to D1. But a lot of guys want to come to the U.S., play basketball at the high level. That’s a good sign for Japanese basketball. I get a lot of DMs, comments, so it’s been great to see a lot of Japanese fans following me, cheering for me; so I just want to keep having the successful season.”
Watanabe is having his best NBA season with the Nets, averaging 7.3 points while shooting 55.2% overall and 51.9% from deep. If he is selected he may have one big advantage. The 3-point contest starts and ends in the corners, going left to right. Watanabe has been scorching from both, hitting better than 60% of his corner threes,
Always popular in Japan, the 28-year-old has reached a new pinnacle this season, “going from from popular to iconic back home,” as Lewis writes. The change is not just in the numbers he’s putting up on the court. He’s playing with some of the most popular players in the world in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. He’s also married to one of Japan’s best known personalities, actress/model/TV presenter Akiko Kuji
“All of the above,” NBA.com Japan writer Daisuke Sugiura told The Post in explaining Watanabe’s rise. “He’s obviously playing so well this year, and playing with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons is helping his popularity big time in my opinion.
“Basketball is not the most popular sport in Japan, but people who like basketball know about those guys, especially KD, who just won a gold medal in Tokyo. Yuta got their trust, it seems like. An undrafted guy, who did not even have a guaranteed contract, is helping a contender now and even developing some chemistry with all those superstars. This is a great story. It’s just really hard not to root for him.”
“It’s cool to see,” his coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I just think back to when I was a kid and my immediate impact was me seeing which Lakers I could hopefully become one day. Now you’ve got kids in Japan thinking, How can I be the next Yuta Watanabe?
“He gives hope to kids who want to play hoops in Japan, and seeing someone that looks like them, and to be able to aspire to be; that’s pretty cool. And for him to be proud of it, and own it, but at the same time know he’s in the NBA and a lot of people respect that for [a] reason, he’s put in the work and he deserves to be here.”
His media numbers justify the commentary, as Lewis writes.
The Nets were the most-watched team on the NBA Rakuten streaming service through Jan. 2, their viewership up 83 percent from last year, when, minus Watanabe, they were fourth. Viewership is up 2.5 times higher when Watanabe plays.
Watanabe’s highlights on NBA Japan’s Twitter garner 20 to 25 times that of the average post. And as of New Year’s Eve, he was leading all jersey sales on NBAStore.jp, up nearly five-fold from his sales of last season.
“Yuta Watanabe has been one of the most popular NBA players in Japan since he was drafted in 2018, but his impact this season, together with the general energy and enthusiasm around the NBA in Japan, has taken his popularity to the next level,” NBA Asia Managing Director Ramez Sheikh said. “Not only is this a function of Yuta’s individual success this season, but he’s playing a key role for a contending team at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.”
Japan is not the basketball hotbed that the Philippines or China are. In the Philippines, 38% of the public view basketball as their favorite sport. In China, the number is close, at 30% while in Japan, the number is only six percent. The NBA hopes Watanabe — and to a lesser degree the Wizards Rui Hachimura — will change that.
Watanabe is happy to be part of the effort which has included a big NBA presence at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and two pre-season contests last year between the Warriors and Wizards that easily sold out.
“The fan base in Japan is growing,” Watanabe said. “Basketball is getting more popular. Baseball is huge, and soccer is huge in Japan, too; but me and Rui playing in the NBA, that’s really helping Japanese basketball. And the B League, they’re doing a great job, too. … So basketball is getting better the last three, four years.”
A lot is riding on that, as NBA Japan’s Sugiura told Lewis.
“No question about it, Sugiura said. “He gave the Japanese basketball kids hope. He is not the most athletic guy, and wasn’t considered as a big time prospect. But he just keeps working hard and finding his way to survive in the NBA.
“This is a classic underdog story Japanese people admire. Dreams do come true … I believe he deserved to be even more popular and famous in Japan, but a lot of kids who love basketball now have a role model. His name is Yuta Watanabe.”
- Yuta Watanabe is expanding the possibilities not only of the Nets, but of an entire nation - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Yuta Watanabe “I have to grow more as an individual”｜Celtics post-war Q&A - Daisuke Sugiura - NBA Japan