EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The if of the 5th: Yuta Watanabe would maximize Phoenix Suns’ spacing

Sep 28, 2023, 8:02 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2023, 4:30 pm

Yuta Watanabe #18 and Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets react during the third quarter against t...

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)

The unofficial start to the NBA season in media day is within a week, and who the Phoenix Suns make the fifth starter alongside Deandre Ayton, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant is unknown.

Well, that was how we introduced this series on Tuesday, a day before Ayton (and Toumani Camara) was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a multi-team trade in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson.

Nurkic slots in for Ayton but the question still remains of who the fifth starter is, and now the Suns have even more options.

It is a compliment to the depth Phoenix has built up but also points to how necessary it is that they must figure that out. We are going to roll through eight candidates leading up to media day on Monday with respect to names like Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu and Ish Wainright, who could hypothetically start games this season as well.

While much intrigue is percolating in regard to the player receiving the nod on opening night in the Bay, we will instead preview all of the options under the optics of who starts the first game of round one in the postseason.

This means our conversations will naturally trend toward what these players have to do over the course of the regular season to earn that spot and how they can differentiate themselves over that time, as opposed to keeping it more theoretical by projecting how training camp and such goes.

That is likely how this will pan out. Head coach Frank Vogel will try different looks and grant various opportunities across a seven-month period. Injuries will force him to do so anyway. Could the Day One starter secure that job immediately? Sure. But Vogel and his staff would be wise to sift through everything he’s got.

Yuta Watanabe’s case as the Suns’ 5th starter

Why should he start: Shooting with size. Phoenix now has a healthy supply of shooters in its collection of supporting cast members but Watanabe at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan would provide the jumbo version of a spacer.

Pros: Watanabe exploded last year with Brooklyn to shoot 46% overall from 3 on Cleaning the Glass’ database, which is in its 100th percentile among forwards. Also known as the best. From the corners, he was a ridiculous 52%. Look, even if regression comes, that’s fine. If a 38% shooter regresses six percent, now we’re talking about someone going from slightly average to very bad. If Watanabe’s number drops six percent, he’s still elite at his size.

Watanabe is going to be so open that it won’t matter too many times but he showed over the summer in the FIBA World Cup that his off-the-bounce game has some juice to it when he’s asked to make the right play after a dribble or two. That would qualify Watanabe as a sound 0.5 player with quick decisions.

In addition, he plays his tail off. It’s going to be a healthy competition for the Dan Majerle Hustle Award, and Watanabe might be my preseason pick to take it home. He’s almost reckless, but in a good way. Watanabe will change a few games this year with his energy alone.

Cons: Is there enough room for a defensive question mark to find playing time in this rotation? Keita Bates-Diop and Little are going to do their jobs in that department. Then again, if those guys are missing good looks from 3, that’s where Watanabe would factor in as more of a known variable. It’s a big training camp for Watanabe to certify his chops defensively because everything else about his game for this type of role is great. And again, he plays really hard, which is half the battle defensively.

But as far as starting, that means Beal or Booker are now defending hyper-quick point guards. Booker is up to the task if Vogel wants to allocate the face of the franchise’s gas tank that way. Not so sure on Beal.

Likelihood: Low but better than you’d think. Again, operating from the perspective of Game 1 in Round 1, if the Suns are continuing to get punished for how much defenses are able to cheat off complementary players to contain the Big 3, insert Watanabe. It would have to be something incredibly specific defensively for it to work out but the offense would be off the charts.

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