EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ Yuta Watanabe shows versatility in Japan’s FIBA opening loss to Germany

Aug 25, 2023, 10:42 AM | Updated: 10:52 am

Yuta Watanabe, Japan vs. Germany FIBA World Cup...

Yuta Watanabe #12 of Japan reacts during the FIBA World Cup Group E game between Germany and Japan at Okinawa Arena on August 25, 2023 in Okinawa, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

(Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

The FIBA World Cup opener for Japan against Germany gave a well-rounded view of what the Phoenix Suns will expect from offseason free-agent signee Yuta Watanabe.

The bad news: Watanabe’s elite skill, shooting, was way off on Friday. Matched up against bigs like the Indiana Pacers’ Daniel Theis for much of the game, Watanabe came out firing threes to pull the big men out of the paint. Two buckets went down early on, but from there it wasn’t falling.

The good: Watanabe was still Japan’s best player by far, putting up 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting despite a 2-of-10 night from beyond the three-point stripe. He added six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal.

Japan opened play with an 81-63 loss to a top-10 team in Germany, which fields current NBA players Theis, Dennis Schroder, Franz Wagner and Moritz Wagner.

And to consider Watanabe dropped a 20-piece while not being the primary or secondary initiator — handling the ball much at all — is why he could fit so well with the Suns.

Japan fell behind 53-31 at the half as Watanabe’s misses from three essentially exposed the team to how few scoring options it has after the Phoenix wing. Twenty-two-year-old, 5-foot-8 point guard Yuki Kawamura felt the size of the Germans by going 2-of-12 from the field, and veteran Yudai Baba scored 15 on 7-of-10 shooting.

After that, there was little oomph.

Turning back to Watanabe though, his patience and ability to play within himself showed out. All 19 of his attempts were good ones, and his second-half adjustment of attacking Theis and other bigger bodies on closeouts of his threes ended well.

Watanabe scored in transition as Japan threw one early punch that wasn’t sustainable. He forgot about the three-point stripe by peeling off a dribble-handoff and released a 17-foot fadeaway, working right to left. He attacked soon after going left to right, nailing an on-the-move fade.

Japan played Germany even in the second half with Watanabe showing how he could tweak his attack.

Defensively, he got bodied a few times while having to defend Theis, among other true bigs. There wasn’t much in terms of one-on-one matchups against the Orlando Magic’s Franz Wagner. That said, Watanabe did nab two early blocks with some alert help defense.

Who will Japan and Yuta Watanabe face in FIBA play next?

The 6-foot-9 Watanabe faces a tall task as the only NBA player on his national team.

Entering group play as a major underdog in a field that includes an Australian squad loaded with NBA players and Finland means he won’t be the best player on the court at any point. Advancing past the opening round is against the odds.

We might see a clearer picture of his defensive floor and ceiling a little more, however.

Against Finland, might Watanabe be the best option to guard a center-sized small forward in 2023 All-Star Lauri Markkanen on Sunday at 5:10 a.m. MST?

Certainly, Watanabe will be tested in the final game of group play against Australia on Tuesday at 4:10 a.m. MST.

The Australians can send elite NBA defenders from combo guard to wing at Japan’s star — and he would have to defend one of them most likely.

Australia’s NBA talent includes Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City), Patty Mills (Atlanta), Matisse Thybulle (Portland), Dyson Daniels (New Orleans), Josh Green (Dallas), Joe Ingles (Orlando), Dante Exum (Dallas) and Xavier Cooks (Washington).

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