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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Analysis: Yuta Watanabe Makes a Smart Choice in Pursuing Move to B.League

Considering the ups and downs of his time in the NBA, now's an ideal time for Yuta Watanabe to begin the next chapter of his career in Japan as a veteran star.

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Yuta Watanabe
Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe shoots a jumper as Brooklyn Nets guard Dennis Smith Jr defends in the first half at FedExForum on February 26, 2024, in Memphis, Tennessee. (Petre Thomas/USA TODAY SPORTS)

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After six seasons in the NBA, Yuta Watanabe is approaching the crossroads of his basketball career.

The hard-working, 206-cm small forward, who turns 30 on October 13, 2024, remains at the peak of his physical powers.

But it's the notion here that he needs to regularly play in games to be productive. In addition, meaningful playing time is, obviously, a top priority as he enters what's likely the latter half of his career.

On Friday, April 19, Watanabe revealed that he plans to pursue playing opportunities in the B.League for the 2024-25 season, signaling the expected end of his NBA career, even though he still has one year remaining on his NBA contract ($2.65 million USD, or about ¥410 million JPY).

Yuta Watanabe Discusses His Decision

Speaking on Instagram Live, he explained his decision rationally and thoughtfully. "I just want to play basketball [and] I want to step into the game and do what I do in practice," Watanabe said.

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Added the Japan national team standout, "I grinded through my 20s but now I hope to play basketball the way I like."

Yuta Watanabe
Yuta Watanabe dribbles in the first quarter of a FIBA Basketball World Cup classification round match against Venezuela on August 31, 2023, at Okinawa Arena. (KYODO)

Watanabe's decision to seek a more visible role as a player comes a year after he helped Akatsuki Japan qualify for the Olympic men's basketball tournament for the first time since the 1976 Montreal Games. (As the Olympic host nation in 2021, Japan received an automatic berth in the Tokyo tourney.)

In October 2023, this reporter spoke to a well-connected Japanese basketball insider, a former bj-league team president before the merger with the NBL that established the B.League in 2016. The source said that Watanabe will finish his career in Japan, adding that he expected the left-handed shooter to join the championship-chasing Alvark Tokyo (44-11 through April 20) in the near future.

Yuta Watanabe
Yuta Watanabe, seen in an April 2023 file photo, is recognized for his outside shooting skills. (NBAE/GETTY IMAGES/via KYODO)

Yuta Watanabe: A Look Back at His NBA Career

Watanabe bounced around the NBA as a non-drafted player out of George Washington University in 2018. He became the second Japanese NBA player, following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, who played four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

To his credit, Watanabe showcased his skills in the NBA G League from the get-go, earning opportunities to play for the Memphis Grizzlies (2018-20), Toronto Raptors (2020-22), and Brooklyn Nets (2022-23). He then joined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent in the summer of 2023. 

Watanabe was traded from the Suns to the Grizzlies in February 2024 after appearing in 29 of Phoenix's first 51 games. He then played in only five more games the rest of the season. Injuries and personal time off were cited as reasons he missed the majority of Memphis' games after the trade.

As he reiterated on Instagram Live, Watanabe vowed to persevere despite setbacks and disappointments in the NBA.

"My goal throughout my 20s was to keep working in America, regardless of the situation. Never give up, no matter what," Watanabe said on Instagram Live. "It was fun at times but also a lot of hard work."

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The Japanese fan favorite appeared in 213 total NBA games, making 30 starts in his six seasons. He averaged 4.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.6 assists. 

Watanabe played in a career-best 58 games for the Nets in 2022-23 and averaged 5.6 points, also a career-high total.

He had his best overall NBA game on December 26, 2021, for the Raptors against the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

Continue reading the full story, which includes news items on baseball, badminton and more, on SportsLook.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven

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