Before meeting with local basketball media following his pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards on Thursday at Capital One Arena, George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe first addressed a swath of reporters from his home country of Japan. Then, while he talked to the American contingent, cameras from Japanese news outlets trailed him from a distance, documenting even the media part of his experience.
Watanabe, who played four years for the Colonials in Foggy Bottom, is now chasing an NBA dream with an entire country's hope on his shoulders. He is aiming to become just the second Japanese-born player to reach basketball's pinnacle.
It's a responsibility he carries with pride.
"I know there was only one Japanese player who played in the NBA like a long time ago, so he was the only one," Watanabe said. "If I can make it, I know that’s a really big thing in Japan. That would make young guys come to the U.S. and play basketball in the U.S. I want to be one of the pioneers for younger guys."
The only player to make the NBA from Japan in the history of the league was Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. Four games, that's it. If Watanabe can carve out an extended career in the NBA, it would be a first for Japan, which like many countries outside of the United States has begun to produce more basketball talent in recent decades as the game has expanded globally.
Watanabe grew up in Miki, Kagawa, a town in the southwest of Japan. He had American basketball idols growing up, including Kobe Bryant who was the NBA's biggest star when Watanabe was a kid.
Now, as Watanabe has set his sights on the NBA, he has focused on others to model his game after. He said he watches film of Jazz forward Joe Ingles because he sees similarities in their game.
"I see myself trying to be like him. He’s a lefty, a great shooter and a great defender. I’ve been watching his tape a lot," Watanabe said.
Watanabe has also been consulting with Hawks forward Joe Cavanaugh, his former teammate at George Washington. Cavanaugh went undrafted last summer, but caught on in Atlanta and appeared in 39 games as a rookie.
Watanabe's best bet may be a similar path. He is currently not projected to be drafted, but there are many avenues to the NBA, as Cavanaugh has shown. He was signed for 2017 training camp by the Hawks, then cut. Then, he inked a two-way contract which was later converted to a regular contract.
Along the way, Cavanaugh spent much of his time with the Erie Bayhawks of the G-League. Watanabe may have to go that route to make the NBA. For now, he's trying to prove what he's capable of and that has not been easy. The Wizards were his second workout and Watanabe isn't happy with his performance thus far.
He is dealing with an ankle injury that has affected his conditioning, he said, and his shots haven't been falling.
"To be honest, I didn’t shoot well. I didn’t really do well in the 1-on-1s or 3-on-3. I know I have to do better on that if I want to make an NBA team," he said.
Watanabe, who stands at 6-foot-9, said he also needs to get stronger. If defense is going to be his calling card, he can't be pushed around by bigger players in the NBA.
"I know I can defend one through four. Today, I didn’t shoot well but I know I can shoot and I can handle the ball, I can pass. I think versatility is one of my strengths," he said.
The Wizards could use depth at the small forward position and will be in the market for a host of undrafted guys to fill out their summer league team and new G-League team. Perhaps Watanabe will land in one of those spots.
NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!