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Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

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Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

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.

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With Wizards and Bulls squaring off, what are the early returns on the Otto Porter Jr. trade?

With Wizards and Bulls squaring off, what are the early returns on the Otto Porter Jr. trade?

Forty two days have passed since the Feb. 6 trade between the Wizards and the Bulls, a deal that started a new era of sorts in Washington with the departure of Otto Porter Jr., a former third overall pick who had stuck with the franchise for a second contract. 

Though the confusion of that first night, as the Wizards informed Porter just before a game against the Bucks, has passed, both teams are still sorting things out and evaluating what they have as the end of the season nears.

Porter won't play on Wednesday night due to a shoulder injury as the Wizards battle the Bulls in Chicago at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. But as these teams square off now over a month later, it seems like a good time to look at how the deal has gone for them so far.

Basically, neither team has really taken off. The Wizards are 8-9 since the trade and the Bulls are 8-10. Porter has put up strong numbers, but has missed time due to various injuries. Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, the two players the Wizards acquired from Chicago, have also improved from their season stats while ostensibly benefiting from a change in scenery.

Porter averaged 12.6 points and shot 45.7 from the field and 36.9 percent from three with the Wizards this season. With the Bulls, he has put up 17.5 points while shooting 48.3 percent overall and 48.8 percent from long range. 

Perhaps most notable is the fact he's taking 13.4 total shots and 5.3 per game from three. Both would be career-highs if held for an entire season. For years, the narrative about him in D.C. was that he either wasn't aggressive enough to create his own shots or the Wizards failed him by not running plays with him in mind.

Parker has simply been much more efficient with the Wizards than he was in Chicago. He's averaging about the same amount of points - 14.8 compared to 14.3 with the Bulls - but his effective field goal percentage has raised from 51.4 to 60.7. The latter would rank seventh in the NBA if it qualified for leaderboards.

Portis is putting up 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, both of which would be career-highs if carried for a full season. And he's shooting 45.6 percent from three, well above the 37.5 percent clip he posted in Chicago this year.

Both teams, interestingly enough, have seen a surge on offense. The Bulls are 23rd on the season in points scored (105.3), but since adding Porter are ninth, averaging nearly 10 more points per game (115). The Wizards are seventh on the season points (114.4), but since the deal top the entire league with 117.5 per game. 

Defensively, it has been a different story. Both the Wizards and Bulls rank in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive rating. Both teams were bad at defending before the deals and haven't shown improvement.

This trade, of course, will ultimately be judged for what happens well beyond this season. The Wizards gave up a valuable asset in Porter, who is only 25 and is under contract for two more years, albeit at arguably a steep price for his production. His contract loomed large in Washington, but can be viewed differently in Chicago because of their otherwise cheap roster of young talent.

Parker and Portis are both likely to hit free agency this offseason, Portis as a restricted free agent. Parker has a team option, but at $20 million it is unlikely to be picked up.

The Wizards could keep both of them, one or neither of them this offseason. And whichever way they go will significantly affect the way the trade is evaluated. If they part with either, the financial flexibility they will then get will have bearing on how the deal is graded.

But for now, both teams seem to be doing well with the pieces they got. All three have improved their numbers in the short period of time they have played with their new teams.

MORE WIZARDS NEWS: 

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The complete list of players who have suited up for the Wizards in the 2018-19 season

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The complete list of players who have suited up for the Wizards in the 2018-19 season

As Chase Hughes writes, it's been quite a year for the Wizards' roster due to injuries and trades. How many of these names can you list without checking?

Here's the complete list of players who have suited up for the Wizards this season:

John Wall
Bradley Beal
Otto Porter Jr.
Markieff Morris
Dwight Howard
Kelly Oubre Jr.
Austin Rivers
Ian Mahinmi
Jeff Green
Tomas Satoransky
Chasson Randle
Jordan McRae
Devin Robinson
Troy Brown Jr.
Thomas Bryant
John Jenkins
Wesley Johnson
Jabari Parker
Bobby Portis
Sam Dekker
Ron Baker
Gary Payton II
Okaro White
Jason Smith
Trevor Ariza

Read more here.