GW alumnus commemorated during NBA game

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Senior Staff Photographer

The Toronto Raptors’ Yuta Watanabe is among GW men’s basketball’s most well-recognized alumni.

The Washington Wizards held a Japanese Heritage Night last Friday night to commemorate the relationship between the United States and Japan and the impact it has had on the D.C. area during their game against the Toronto Raptors.

Playing in the game were the only two Japanese players in the NBA, Rui Hachimura of the Wizards and alumnus Yuta Watanabe of the Raptors. Watanabe’s Raptors emerged victorious over the Wizards 109-105.

The Japanese Heritage Night celebration included matchup animations on the jumbotron throughout the night, as well as player headshots in Japanese, and graphics with facts on Japanese culture during breaks in the game. Fans attending the game received a commemorative Japanese heritage scarf.

Watanabe and Hachimura guarded each other on the defensive end when they were both on the floor. Watanabe finished the night with two rebounds and no shots attempted, playing only six minutes in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Hachimura had 11 points and eight rebounds while going 5-of-12 from the field in 20 minutes.

Watanabe, who was born in Yokohama and attended high school in Kagawa, is among GW men’s basketball’s most well-recognized alumni after graduating in 2018 and leading the team to an NIT Championship in 2016, the first postseason title in program history.

He was the first Japanese-born basketball player to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship under the GW basketball program and was labeled as “The Chosen One” by The Japan Times in 2013.

As a freshman in Buff and Blue, Watanabe was an important contributor off the bench. He averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, making 42 percent of his 2-point shots and 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers.

In his sophomore year, he emerged as a force on the defensive end, leading the team in blocked shots with 40 blocks, the second most in the Atlantic 10 that season. He averaged 8.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting 50.7 percent from inside the arc and 30.6 percent from three.

Watanabe was a key member of the team that won a record-breaking 28 games and the NIT Championship, starting 37 of 38 games.

As a junior, Watanabe took on a more prominent role on the team, ending the season as the second-leading scorer. He made the A-10 All-Defensive Team and averaged 12.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while making 50.5 percent of his 2-point shots and 31.4 percent of his 3-pointers.

In his final season in Foggy Bottom, Watanabe was the star of the show, leading the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game and coming second on the team in rebounding with 6.1 per game. He had a 2-point percentage of 47.6 percent and a 36.4 percent clip from three.

In his final home game he scored a career high 31 points in a 72-56 win over Fordham. He was named the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, the only GW player to ever win the award, and earned recognition on the A-10 All-Conference Third Team and A-10 All Defensive Team.

Watanabe ranks second in school history in blocked shots with 147 and games played with 134 as well as 15th in scoring with 1,460 points.

Although he went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft, he played for the Brooklyn Nets in the 2018 NBA Summer League where he averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. This earned him a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. He made his NBA debut in October 2018, becoming only the second Japanese player to play in the league.

Despite spending much of the season with the Grizzlies G League affiliate, the Grizzlies were third in the league in merchandise sold in Japan thanks to Watanabe’s presence. In the 2018-19 G League season, Watanabe averaged 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists while starting 32 of 33 games.

The following season, Watanabe and Hachimura became the first pair of Japanese players to share the court for an NBA game. Including Friday night’s game, Watanabe’s side leads the series between the two 3-0, although it was their first time playing against each other since Feb. 9, 2020.

Watanabe was named to the midseason All-NBA G League Team for the Western Conference and started all 22 games, finishing the year with 17.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Watanabe signed with the Raptors back in April of last year, making him the first Colonial to sign a contract with the NBA since 2017.

He ended up playing in 50 games for the Raptors and starting four of them while averaging 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game with an effective field goal percentage of 53.9 percent. Watanabe played in the Olympics for his native Japan this past summer, averaging 17.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while starting every game.

This season he has played in 21 games and started four of them while averaging 6.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game with a field goal percentage of 48. He recorded a career high in points and assists in December with 26 points and 13 rebounds as many of the team’s star players were out due to COVID-19.

The game also included performances from Kimiko Shimada, the choral director of the Japanese Choral Society of Washington, who sung the national anthem, Taiko Drummers at halftime and a message from Japanese ambassador to the United States Koji Tomita about the “long-lasting ties between Japan and the United States.”

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