In Japan, Yuta Watanabe has already achieved rockstar status.
The 6-foot-9-inch junior guard got a taste of the limelight when men’s basketball took its foreign tour of his home country in August.
Watanabe played in front of packed stadiums in four cities during the two-week trip. Outside venues, he signed autographs and took hundreds of selfies with young fans who wanted nothing more than a picture with “The Chosen One.”
“It was really fun,” Watanabe said with a modest grin when asked about his celebrity. “I usually can’t play basketball in front of Japanese fans, so that was very cool. I really enjoyed myself and so did the team.”
In 2013–2014, Watanabe averaged 13 points per game in his one season at St. Thomas More School in Connecticut, where he earned his melodramatic moniker from The Japan Times. The soft-spoken Kagawa native was recruited to play in Foggy Bottom the next year, becoming the first Japanese-born player to ever receive a Division I scholarship.
Now entering his third year at GW, under the direction of a new coach and surrounded by a markedly different supporting cast, the 22-year-old hopes to finally have his long-awaited breakout season.
And he’ll need to find success to help the Colonials, picked eighth in the 2016 Atlantic 10 Preseason Poll, get back to the Big Dance – a feat the program has come painfully close to achieving in Watanabe’s first two years but never accomplished.
“[Making the NCAA Tournament] is the most important goal,” Watanabe said. “I do feel more pressure [this year] – last year we had Patricio [Garino], Joe McDonald, Kevin Larsen who could lead us – but now I have to be a leader, both on and off the court. I have the experience, so I feel like I can handle it.”
As a freshman, Watanabe saw just 10 starts and averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He finished the year hot, however, scoring a career-high seven three-pointers against Massachusetts in GW’s regular-season finale.
Watanabe became a regular starter last season. Averaging 8.4 points and 4.0 rebounds, he finished the year as the Colonials’ fifth-highest scorer and led the team with 40 blocks. But plagued by inconsistency – especially down the stretch – the guard saw his offensive rating take a hit during his sophomore season.
Watanabe considers his shooting and defensive ability to be two of his biggest strengths but expects to be handling the ball a lot more this season than in years past. He said he’s been working on that aspect of his game all summer, as well as improving his passing and rebounding.
Watanabe’s coaches and teammates are anticipating an exceptional junior campaign for the international phenom.
“I’m expecting Yuta to make a big jump,” interim head coach Maurice Joseph said. “I know he had a great summer in the weight room, strength and conditioning. He has taken a jump forward in his confidence, and he knows now that he is going to be able to step into a bigger role in terms of needing to produce for us, so I’m looking forward to seeing him embrace that challenge.”
All-Conference First Team pick Tyler Cavanaugh agrees with Joseph and said he knows Watanabe will be a key starter for the Colonials on both sides of the ball. The graduate student forward and the team were able to catch a glimpse of what might be in store for Watanabe’s third year in Foggy Bottom during their summer tour.
Across four exhibitions – three against the Japanese National Team, whom he played with in July at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia, and one against the Ryukyu Golden Kings – Watanabe posted an impressive 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
The Colonials won all four games in Japan by an average margin of 18.3 points.
“Most teams can go on foreign trips and don’t have many people in the stands, but we were fortunate enough to have people waiting for us when we were walking onto the bus after a game because of Yuta,” Cavanaugh said. “[The trip] was great for us. Just to be able to play in different arenas and play in front of three to five thousand people each night is great especially for the young guys to be able to go in a real game atmosphere with real officials and just continue to improve.”
Of course the trip also served as a way for the group, a team with seven newcomers, to build a rapport off the court.
Aside from playing exhibitions, the team took a Japanese sports globalization class, meeting with officials and executives of leading sports companies and visiting iconic attractions throughout the country.
Watanabe also got to share his culture with his teammates, which at times made for some funny moments, he said. At one dinner, the players were served tempura. Freshman forward Kevin Marfo – Watanabe’s 245-pound roommate on the trip – was sitting next to him. After they finished their plates, Marfo asked “That was the appetizer, right?” It was the entree.
“We’ve got lots of new guys, so the trip to Japan just made us even closer,” Watanabe said. “We got to know each other well and built a lot of good chemistry.”
A few weeks after returning home, it was announced former head coach Mike Lonergan – who accompanied the team in Japan – would be dismissed as head coach.
Watanabe was a veteran who felt compelled to step up during the time of adversity to help his team regroup and to be a source of support for younger players, he said.
“The freshmen were really confused in that situation because they don’t even know how college goes,” Watanabe said. “But Tyler, me – everybody was just confused, so I was sure the freshmen were having a hard time. So I was trying to talk to them as much as I could and stick together.”
As is the sense with the entire program, Watanabe thought the best way to move forward was to shift his and his teammates’ focus back to the court.
With arguably his most important, and potentially most successful, collegiate season on the horizon, he hasn’t had time to think about much else.
“I told [the freshmen] ‘We have to do what we have to do no matter what,’” Watanabe said. “Our goal doesn’t change.”