Crucial Season Awaits Yuta Watanabe
The final college season for ‘The Chosen One’
By Daisuke Sugiura for GWsports.com/Yuta
Editor’s note: this piece was originally written in Japanese and has been properly translated into English. To view the Japanese version, click here.
For Yuta Watanabe, the 2017-18 season is an important one. As GW’s best player, his success will be directly linked to that of the team. A strong senior campaign will also set up his future aspirations to play professionally in the NBA.
Over the past three years, Watanabe’s scoring average has steadily improved. He’s also been established as one of the best perimeter defenders in the Atlantic 10 conference, and was named to the preseason All-Atlantic 10 second team and All-Defensive team by a panel of league coaches and media. This season Watanabe will be co-captain with Jack Granger and Patrick Steeves. The time is now for him to make his name known throughout the United States.
It has not always been smooth sailing. Watanabe came to the United States in September 2013, and at that time it was difficult for him to communicate in everyday life.
"When I was at St. Thomas More School (prep school), English conversation wasn’t easy. I had absolutely no idea what people were saying," Watanabe looks back with a wry smile.
"It was my first time to play American basketball and I had plenty of hardships because I could not speak English at all and I did not know anyone around me."
The language, culture and living environment in the U.S. are very different from Japan. You’d probably be able to relate and understand how hard it is, if you have any experience of living in foreign country around the age of 20. You could become passive in different cultures, feel lonely and useless. However, while being confused in everyday life, there was a place where Watanabe always felt comfortable.
"From the beginning, I didn’t have as much of hard time on the basketball court,” Watanabe recalls. “I could not tell my teammates what I wanted to say, but I could kind of understand what the coach was asking me. I did not have as much trouble with playing basketball as I did with everything else."
For Watanabe, the basketball court acted as his sanctuary. Immediately after having arrived at GW in the fall of 2014, although he looked much younger than other players, the language barrier was not seen on the court. The English conversation that was also progressing gradually, and as he advanced to his sophomore and junior years, he had started to look much more comfortable in speaking English in public even at the podium of the post-game interview.
"When I met Yuta for the first time, the only word he could say was "Hi," but now he makes jokes in English. How far he has come? It’s pretty impressive," says Joe McDonald, who played with Watanabe for two seasons and now works as the team’s director of player development.
Looking back, Watanabe doesn’t second-guess his decision despite the difficulties he has encountered.
"I definitely made a right choice coming to the USA," said Watanabe.
The 23-year-old, who has gotten bigger both mentally and physically, is now ready to be a team leader.
"I think he's ready to be a leader of this team for a couple reasons,” head coach Maurice Joseph says. “One, he's always going to be the hardest worker on this team. If nothing else he's always going to lead by example. It's always great when your best player is also your best defender, your biggest gym rat, a guy you can rely on to know all the plays and be in the gym extra. Two, he's also increased his voice and has done a better job helping these young guys come along and understand what's expected of them from a culture standpoint. “
A player born in Japan who couldn’t speak more than a few words of English five years ago has now become a vocal leader of a Division 1 basketball team.
GW has added a lot of new pieces since last season. Tyler Cavanaugh, who was an ace scorer that currently plays for the Atlanta Hawks, graduated, and Watanabe must take over the lead role. For GW to prosper in A-10 Conference play, Watanabe needs to carry the team both offensively and defensively. Without him being established as one of the best players in country, it’s difficult to imagine the young team making a run at the NCAA Tournament.
“The last three seasons I always felt that I just needed to do my own job,” Watanabe says. “But this year I have to guard the opponent's best scorer, and also need to score, assist and rebound. Simply, I need to do everything, play like the best player on the team."
In order for Watanabe to make an impression with scouts and increase his chances of landing a roster spot with an NBA team, which is his ultimate goal, he must show his talent, grit and potential this year.
His story, though, is about more than his own individual career. Even considering the future of Japanese basketball, it seems to be important for Watanabe to do well this season and beyond.
"If I succeed here I will also open the door for younger generations in Japan,” said Watanabe. “The athlete who wants to come to the USA, I do not know how much I affect other players, but I have heard of the fact that the number of players who want to come to the USA is increasing. I am so happy if I am able to help the young players in Japan."
Watanabe carries the weight of GW basketball and the future of the Japanese basketball team. The future is now.
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