In the fall of 2014, then-freshman Yuta Watanabe walked on the Smith Center floor for the first time with a lot to prove.
As a skinny, 6-foot-9 guard – and only the fourth-ever Division I basketball player from Japan – he showed early on that his skills could transition to the college game. In his first year at GW, he scored 7.4 points per game and earned himself a starting spot by the end of the season.
Over the past three years, Watanabe grew in prominence on the court, increasing his scoring and minutes played each year. But that pressure to prove himself will continue into his last season as a Colonial.
Now, as the only men’s basketball player with more than one year with the team, Watanabe has established himself as one of the best defenders in the league and will be relied on to lead the scoring threat for the Colonials in his final year in Foggy Bottom.
“I still can’t believe it,” Watanabe said. “I was a freshman, like, yesterday and all of the sudden I became a senior. It is crazy how time flies.”
The defensive side comes easy for the Kagawa, Japan native. Last season, he was selected to the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive team after frustrating numerous guards with his length and aggressiveness. He limited the likes of 2017 Davidson graduate Jack Gibbs and St. Bonaventure senior Jaylen Adams to outputs below their averages en route to GW victories.
Head coach Maurice Joseph said Watanabe will again be counted on to lead the Colonials’ defensive effort. At the conference’s media day last month, he was named to both the All-Conference Second Team and All-Defensive Team.
“Yuta Watanabe is one of the best players in this league, seeing as though he can guard probably one through five,” Joseph said. “You hear two-way player all the time now, and when you’re talking about two-way players I think you have to talk about Yuta Watanabe in the Atlantic 10.”
For Watanabe, the biggest change between this year and last will be the team’s reliance on his offensive skill set. Last year, he contributed 12.2 points per game – the second highest total on the team – at an efficient 44.4 percent from the field. But he was often second fiddle to former Colonials star forward Tyler Cavanaugh.
Watanabe said he understands that if the team wants to win, he will need to increase his scoring load without sacrificing his defensive effort.
“Tyler was the one that always got points and helped us,” he said. “But he is gone so it’s my job now and I really have got to be aggressive and I have to score more in order to help the team win.”
To improve his scoring variety, Watanabe points to his jump shot. He said he worked on improving his mid-range jumper during the offseason so that he would have more opportunities to shoot over the defender because of his size advantage.
Watanabe’s other main focus during the offseason was to continue his road toward a better basketball body, he said. He opted to stay in D.C. this summer and put on 10 pounds of mass, he said.
Joseph said the additional weight allows him to both play more physically with opponents his size and remain injury free throughout the five-month schedule.
“The season is long, he is going to take a beating, all players do, and the way he plays he is reckless out there,” Joseph said. “He kind of launches his body around a lot and he is going to take beating, but that extra weight, that extra strength, will help shoulder that load.”
As a self proclaimed “shy” person, Watanabe has operated beyond his comfort zone during GW’s preseason action. As the young team welcomed nine newcomers this offseason, Wantanabe said they will only be able to succeed if he remains vocal both on and off the floor.
Newcomers, including graduate student Bo Zeigler and freshman Terry Nolan Jr., said Watanabe is one of the guys on the team that players look to for guidance.
“Last year I was an example leader, so I led the team by being a good example,” Watanabe said. “But this year I have got to keep doing that as well as being a vocal leader, which is not my personality.”
Once Watanabe concludes his fourth and final season and graduates this spring, he said his hopes are set on playing professionally – regardless of the hurdles to get there.
“Hopefully I can make it to the NBA,” Watanabe said. “But it is the highest level of basketball in the world, so I know it is really tough, but I want to make it.”