It was the first game of the season, and the Colonials had hung a fresh new flag – white with a red circle in the center – from the railing in front of the student section.
Yuta Watanabe, the fourth-ever Japanese-born player on a Division I basketball team and a GW rookie, trotted out onto the hardwood and sank his first official three-pointer as a college athlete. The crowd erupted, yelling “Yu-ta, Yu-ta, Yu-ta.”
The chant would become a Smith Center staple during Watanabe’s first year at GW. The 20-year-old freshman was thrust into a high-stakes situation, where he was asked to be a key contributor to a team that was coming off an NCAA Tournament berth and trying to make its first repeat appearance since 2007.
The Colonials didn’t make it, instead losing in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament to top-seeded Temple. But Watanabe earned his keep for much of the year as the team’s sixth man, and moved into the starting lineup toward the end of the season.
“I feel like I had a great experience as a freshman. The coach gave me a lot of minutes to play and I really appreciate that,” Watanabe said. “Our goal was the NCAAs and we didn’t make it, so I wanted to play there, but I really [got] a lot of experience.”
Over the course of the season, Watanabe averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game – more than double the minutes of any other rookie on the team. He shot 38 percent from the field overall, 35 percent from three-point range and a team-best 83 percent from the free-throw line.
Watanabe’s maturity and silky smooth jumper had him taking on more duties than most first-years: He made many of the team’s technical shots and started in GW’s last 10 games.
While adapting quickly on the court, Watanabe leaned on his older teammates, especially junior forward Kevin Larsen.
“Many people gave me advice, but especially Kevin talked to me a lot,” Watanabe said. “Especially when I had a bad game, like a few in a row, Kevin often texted me like, ‘Are you OK? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?’ So Kevin really helped me.”
Watanabe absorbed Larsen’s advice. For example, the third-year told Watanabe to switch his in-game celebration from an awkward jump to the Carmelo Anthony three-finger symbol or a classic fist-pump.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help the new guys get accustomed to the college basketball level,” Larsen said. “That’s what teammates are there for.”
It wasn’t Watanabe’s first experience learning from older teammates. When he was 18 years old, American coach Tom Wisman asked him to join the Japanese national team. A high school junior, Watanabe’s father had to sign off for his son to try out.
He placed third with the team at the 2013 East Asian Basketball Association Championship for Men and ninth in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship as the youngest member of the squad by three years.
It became clear that he would merit attention from American colleges, so he went to prep school at Saint Thomas More Academy in Oakdale, Conn. to work on his English and basketball skills while getting recruited. That’s when head coach Mike Lonergan noticed the skinny, 6-foot-8 wunderkind with a strong perimeter game.
“I love Yuta. His best days are ahead of him,” Lonergan said. “Just like his one year at prep school, he started off as a good player, and by the end of the year, he was First Team All-Conference in a pretty good prep school league. I think Yuta’s adjustment has been great. He’s got great teammates and he’s a very focused young man.”
Still, there were some bumps along the way. Watanabe had great stretches in December and January, scoring in double-figures for six straight games, but struggled later in the season and he fell into a shooting slump by February. In a 14-game stretch from January 15 to March 4, Watanabe never reached double figures.
During that time, it looked like opposing teams had begun to scout him better as a shooter and Watanabe was becoming tentative with the increased attention to his game. At 193 pounds, the lanky forward struggled against more muscular opponents inside, and when defenders began following him out to the perimeter, he was left with a limited arsenal of offensive weapons.
“I need to be a better player,” Watanabe said. “I think I did well this season, but [at] the end of the season, my percentage with three pointers was going down and I had some bad games, so I’ve got to gain weight more, I’ve got to be stronger and I have to make more shots. So I have to practice more.”
That kind of level-headed self-critique is typical for Watanabe, who said he “didn’t feel any pressure” from the attention of media and fans. Japanese media were present at most GW games, and Watanabe was featured in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Watanabe, who said he wants to play in the NBA someday, comes from a family of basketball blue-bloods from Kagawa – his mother, father and sister all played professionally in Japan. He is a household name back home, where the Japan Times nicknamed him “The Chosen One.”
Watanabe said he watches Japanese comedy shows and hangs out with his teammates in his spare time. He said fellow international students like teammates Larsen of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Mar del Plata, Argentina-native Patricio Garino have helped him adjust to life at GW.
Now, part of that life is being a fan favorite. After a midseason game, a group of giggling female students waved to him from the sidelines in a chorus of “Hi, Yuta” before scampering away. Watanabe grinned and nodded bashfully.
With his first college offseason ahead of him, Watanabe said he is focusing on bulking up. For him, the freshman 15 might not carry such a negative connotation.
“I eat a lot. I’m skinny but I eat a lot,” Watanabe said. “If [people] knew that, they would be surprised.”
This article appeared in the April 9, 2015 issue of the Hatchet.