Yuta Watanabe avoids major injury for Japan in FIBA play, may face Luka Doncic Saturday

Aug 18, 2023, 1:50 PM | Updated: 2:23 pm

Yuta Watanabe...

Yuta Watanabe #18 and Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets react during the third quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on November 17, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Yuta Watanabe, one of the Phoenix Suns’ newest weapons, avoided a serious ankle injury earlier this week and may play for the Japan national team when they take on Slovenia in FIBA World Cup exhibition play Saturday.

The 28-year-old forward hurt his right ankle in the second quarter of Tuesday’s 75-65 come-from-behind win over Angola at Ariake Arena in Japan a co-host of the FIBA World Cup. Watanabe is co-host Japan’s only NBA player.

According to Kyoto News, head coach Tom Hovasse said Watanabe underwent MRI scans which revealed he escaped serious damage and may return to action Saturday against Slovenia, the last of Japan’s three SoftBank Cup exhibition games in Tokyo. Watanabe did not play in Thursday’s 88-70 loss to reigning Olympic silver medalist France.

Saturday’s game against Luka Doncic and Slovenia is the last for Japan in exhibition play at the World Cup. Group play begins Aug. 25 when Japan takes on Germany. The World Cup Final is Sept. 10.

The FIBA Basketball World Cup is also a qualifier for the next Olympics and will produce seven directly qualified national teams for the Olympic Games, with host France receiving automatic qualification to the event. The seven spots will include two teams from the Americas, two teams from Europe, one team from Africa, one team from Asia and one team from Oceania.

The four remaining places in the 12-team Olympic field are reserved for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments 2024, with two rounds of Qualifying Tournaments for Paris 2024.

Know Yuta

Watanabe, a lefty from Yokohama, Japan, is expected to add floor spacing and wing defense to Phoenix’s All-Star trio of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

Watanabe was one of the league’s most efficient three-point shooters last season in a reserve role with the Brooklyn Nets, draining 44.4% of his shots from deep on 2.3 attempts per game. He also hit 55.7% of his two-pointers and finished with a 62.1% effective field-goal percentage.

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 5.6 points per game last year but 16.4 points per 100 possessions.

Watanabe was also teammates with Durant before the Nets traded the latter to Phoenix at the deadline.

The Suns are Watanabe’s fourth team in five seasons.

He entered the league in 2018-19 on a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies for whom he played 33 games in two years.

His role grew on the Toronto Raptors from 2020-22 and he played a career-high 58 games last season in Brooklyn.

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