36 unbothered: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role

Sep 26, 2023, 9:43 AM

Yuta Watanabe #12 of Japan dribbles the ball during the FIBA Basketball World Cup Classification 17...

Yuta Watanabe #12 of Japan dribbles the ball during the FIBA Basketball World Cup Classification 17-32 Group O game between Japan and Cape Verde at Okinawa Arena on September 02, 2023 in Okinawa, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

(Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.

He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.

Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 28 days away from Tuesday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will be joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby to dish on 36 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season.

Previously –

Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry

Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul

Day 28: Does Yuta Watanabe have the most upside out of all the Suns’ signings?

Erik Ruby: If you just look at Watanabe’s stats from his career, you probably would assume he would not be a player that Suns fans would be clamoring over and praising James Jones for signing in the offseason.

So why are they?

The not-so-simple answer is that they are getting excited about the idea of Yuta Watanabe, and that is not a bad way to look at it. One of Japan’s two NBA players (Rui Hachimura being the other) averaged just 5.6 points per game last season in Brooklyn, shooting 44.4% from 3 and 49% from the field over 58 games. That scoring number is certainly not eye-popping, but the shooting percentages are more than intriguing.

If you look at his prior four seasons in the league, he has shown improvement in all but one year. Watanabe has carved out his role in the NBA by hustling harder from most, becoming a lethal shooter from deep and holding his own on the defensive end. That prototype is the perfect player to plug in next to any combination of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant. He is big enough to handle some larger defensive assignments, yet nimble enough to switch and hold his own. The lefty has also been adding to his game over the years, becoming a threat not only outside the arc but closer to the basket as well, shooting nearly 56% on his two-pointers.

That part of his game really showed up during his FIBA run with his home country this summer. Watanabe was driving to the rim, hitting floaters and showing versatility when called upon to be a leader, not a role player. We’ve seen FIBA runs enhance a player’s performance the following season a couple of times, most notably with Lauri Markkanen, and it should not be a stretch to assume some of that juice will carry over to the regular season.

On top of all of this, Watanabe and Durant have played together before in Brooklyn, and you have to imagine that Jones checked in with the superstar to get his perspective when thinking about bringing him aboard this championship chase. Their chemistry is something to watch, but I will be more intrigued to see how he fits in around everyone else, and what types of lineups he can be a part of for Frank Vogel.

Watanabe is one of those players that most likely will stay under 10 points per game their entire career. But he’s the perfect complementary piece for a team looking to end at the top of the mountain at the end of the season.

Kellan Olson: Of all the signings the Suns made on the veteran’s minimum, Watanabe was the most surprising to me in regards to that player actually taking the minimum.

Watanabe had a breakout 2022-23 season, albeit when the Brooklyn Nets’ superteam was intact. Once the Nets traded Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, reshaping the roster to having loads of depth in the mid-tiers of a rotation, Watanabe’s playing time faded. But what he showed with Durant in the fold was a penchant for energy plays, enough to fill in the gaps so his supreme shooting wasn’t the only positive he brought on the floor. He’s perfect for the type of rosters he’s been on with Durant.

Given Watanabe’s size and the small sizzle of off-ball capabilities we saw in the FIBA World Cup that indicated he can be trusted in 0.5 scenarios attacking closeouts, the only question marks are if his elite efficiency is maintained and if he can defend OK enough on the other end.

Because Phoenix has a Big 3 of perimeter players, most of the Suns’ other perimeter players are not going to be afforded the luxury of taking a weaker assignment defensively. While we know Devin Booker and Kevin Durant can defend in a way that translates to winning, and will soon find out if Bradley Beal can, those three still should not be put in positions to exert themselves to a high degree at all times. Watanabe will have to prove himself against big wings, and ones that initiate some offense.

If he can avoid being a negative in that defensive role and a 3-point percentage north of 40% holds, the Suns found an absolute steal. And even if Watanabe’s defense is a bit problematic, the Suns have to start taking more 3s, which should come via placing lots of shooting around the Big 3. Watanabe, along with Eric Gordon and Damion Lee, will help with that.

Kevin Zimmerman: The real estate market is ugly right now in Phoenix. Watanabe and guard Damion Lee are going to have to plunk down some cash, because they’ll be doing more than camping in the corners for the Suns.

They will be tasked with sitting there and spacing the court, effectively deleting one defender from a play. And if that defender decides that helping on the Big 3 is more important, then the snipers will go to work on the corners.

Combined, the duo shot 51% from the two corners during the 2022-23 season.

Watanabe has his flaws. Even for Japan this summer, he was hardly used on the ball, though he did flash quick flurries of moves to get himself open in the midrange and can strike in transition. He’s not going to pound it into the ground — the Suns don’t need him to — and defensively he’s a little undersized to hang with larger power forwards.

Realistically, he’s not going to play a ton.

If I may make a football analogy to explain that his role will be larger than those minutes played, it’s this: He is the gadget jet-sweep guy who may lack great hands, size and route-running abilities. He’s the guy used as eye candy and despite appearing for 10 offensive plays a game is on the scouting report because he has all the speed in the world. If you defend him, it might open up things for the starters. But if you ignore him, it could be a deep shot for a touchdown.

Teams will be tempted to break their corner-sitting duties to help on the Suns’ stars, and that will make Watanabe a key matchup whenever he’s on the court.

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