Yuta Watanabe: 'There was a time I thought I might not belong to this league'

Yuta Watanabe: 'There was a time I thought I might not belong to this league'

Nets

Yuta Watanabe: 'There was a time I thought I might not belong to this league'

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Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe began training camp on the roster bubble and improbably became the league’s top three-point shooter at 57.1 percent and is shooting an elite 60.9 percent from the field overall to this point.

Watanabe sat down with HoopsHype in Brooklyn’s locker room to open up about his journey to get to this point and rapid rise to notoriety. He discussed the pressure of representing Japan with Rui Hachimura as the only two players from their country and changing the narrative surrounding Asian basketball stereotypes. The Japanese forward also explained how Kevin Durant helped him improve as a shooter, his long-term future, and more in our interview.

What does it mean to represent Japan with Rui Hachimura as the only two Japanese NBA players?

Patrick Smith-Getty Images

Yuta Watanabe: 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.

If I told you that you’d lead the NBA three-point percentage, what would you have said, and how have you done it so far?

YW: It’s crazy. 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. 

What advice has Kevin Durant given you?

Steph Chambers-Getty Images

YW: 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. Every time I make shots, he always reacts and is hyped and happy. That’s what keeps me going. I really appreciate his leadership. 

On a non-guaranteed contract, what has this season done to show that you’re an NBA player and belong here?

YW: Defensively, I always thought I was fine in Toronto. There was a time I was getting minutes because of my defense, but my offense was a problem. I was so inconsistent with my three-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.

What’s been the toughest part of your NBA journey so far?

YW: 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.

Did you ever doubt you’d get to this point, given what you’ve gone through?

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YW: 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.

What’s been the best part of your career to this point?

YW: I’m definitely enjoying this moment right now. Before the injury, I was out there playing a lot of minutes and playing in clutch time, making shots. I’ve seen my teammates happy, and I was making winning plays. I’ve been through tough situations, but I know that it was necessary to be here. I’m glad I never gave up.

Have you thought about your future?

YW: 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.

What goals do you have for your career?

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Watanabe: I don’t have individual goals, but I’ve always wanted to win a championship. I know we have that chance here. I know we had a slow start, but as you can see, we’re getting so much better since the beginning. The chemistry is growing, and we’re trusting each other while the communication is getting better. I know we have a chance here. I want to help the Nets win the championship.

You can follow Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) on Twitter.

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