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Yuta Watanabe interested in Shohei Ohtani’s free agency as well as his own

Yuta Watanabe doesn’t know if he’ll be back in New York next season, but he told NBA Japan that he hopes that fellow countryman Shohei Ohtani will be!

“As rumored, it would be great if he came to New York,” Watanabe told Daisuke Sugiura, according to a Google translation of the report. “I wish I knew if I would stay in New York or not, but I’m going to be an FA, so I don’t know what will happen. Am I recruiting to move to New York? Well, I really want you to come to New York!”

Watanabe is an unrestricted free agent this summer after what he has called his best season in the NBA. He set personal bests in games played (58), minutes (16.0), points (5.6), and shooting (49.1% overall, 44.4% from deep) while battling a back injury. He also became a favorite among fans and teammates (read the Instagram comments.) Ohtani, who regularly puts up big numbers as a pitcher and hitter with the Angels, becomes a free agent next summer and the Yankees (and everyone else) has their eyes on him.

In the interview with NBA Japan published Monday, Watanabe noted that the Nets pushed his connection with Ohtani, suggesting that he wear an Ohtani jersey before Game 3 of the first round series vs. Philly. Ohtani was in New York to play the Yankees that night.

“Someone from the Nets told me he wanted to do something like this,’ Watanabe said with a laugh. The two are the same age and know each other a bit, Watanabe said, but it’s more a case of mutual admiration rather than a friendship.

The comments were Watanabe’s latest since he returned to Japan. In talking with the Japanese media last week, and in an Instagram post, the 28-year-old talked about how much he enjoyed his time with the Nets despite the uncertainty of his free agency.

“Compared to the past four years, this fifth year has definitely been my best season,” he told Japanese media, For the time being, it was a season where I felt that I was able to grow one step, so I think it was a good season with a lot of content.”

He admitted that he was uncertain he’d make the roster back in training camp. He was simply a camp invite without a contract.

“To be honest, the training camp was really tough. Of course, I couldn’t rent a room, so my wife and I spent about two months in a small hotel room,” he recalled. “My wife went back to Japan on the way to work, but for me, I spent two months battling with anxiety about what would happen next, until the start of the training camp in September and October.”

Watanabe who early in the season was among the league leaders in 3-point shooting said he knew he wasn’t going to be able to keep hitting from deep at that rate but that he proved he could be reliable.

“Shooting 57% was too good a number, so I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep it. What I am able to achieve is that I set a goal of 40% or more for this year, so I think I was able to clear one of my goals,” he noted, adding that he also drew confidence from being able to play with the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

After the trade, he noted that his game changed with the addition of multiple wings.

“So, I decided that this is the kind of world it is now,” he told Japanese reporters. “In the past four years, I spent more time not playing, so I quickly switched my mindset to keep doing the same thing as before. I lived every day with the intention of not neglecting my preparations, because I might be able to participate in a game at any time and in various situations.”

He also felt ready to play in the post-season unlike previous years.

“Of course, we lost four games in a row, and I only got out in the very end of the first game, which was a really frustrating ending, but at the same time, I could see some growth in myself, and at the same time, I still had enough of my own strength. I think it was a meaningful four games.”

His best moment? Proving to his former team, the Raptors, that he had come a long way.

“[T]he one that left the biggest impression on me was the game in Toronto, where I scored a come-from-behind shot with about 10 seconds remaining,” he recalled.

Watanabe said his free agency will determine his availability for the FIBA World Cup at the end of August.

On Wednesday, Watanabe was named to the Gold House list of 100 Asian leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year...