With the NBA Draft being looming, all eyes from Japan are focusing on prospect Rui Hachimura, drawing attention away from the Memphis Grizzlies’ Yuta Watanabe.
Though the Memphis Grizzlies‘ Yuta Watanabe was playing on a two-way contract this season, a lot of the international hype made it seem as if he was a first-round NBA Draft pick. The reason for this was that he was just the second Japanese-born player to log regular season minutes in the NBA. Now in 2019, NBA prospect Rui Hachimura looks to make history himself by becoming No. 3 on this very limited list.
Much like Watanabe built his profile in the NCAA ranks over four years at George Washington, Hachimura became popular over the course of three years at Gonzaga. The 6’8″, 230-pound forward is an intriguing prospect that has the league buzzing, which is something Yuta did not quite achieve upon his entrance into the NBA.
Yuta Watanabe flew under the radar, except in the country of Japan. Japanese hoops fans followed Yuta all season long — and it was felt in a major way in Memphis, Tennessee. Being a small-market NBA team, the Grizzlies absolutely welcome any and all fandom they can achieve. While Yuta only appeared in 15 regular season games in 2018-19, it was nice to expand the fan base, even in a mediocre 33-49 season.
On the topic of Rui Hachimura, this is the latest threat to the popularity of Yuta Watanabe. Rui is strong, athletic, and a bully in nature on the hardwood. He is much less raw than Watanabe displayed upon his own respective entrance into the NBA one year ago.
Rui Hachimura is slated to be a first-round NBA Draft pick on June 20th, and there is potential for him to go in the top-14. Depending on the market in which he falls — such as, say, the Boston Celtics — this will enable the hype behind the Gonzaga product to explode. His slams and physicality will make him an instant fan favorite among the masses.
You have to wonder what Yuta Watanabe would be for the Memphis Grizzlies if he did not have the history-making hype behind him. Would he have played in as many regular season games with the Grizzlies? Would he have kept his two-way contract the entire season, whereas Memphis continued to alternate through options in their second two-way contract spot?
These are legitimate questions, and while Yuta Watanabe may very well earn a full-time spot in the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation next season, there will be a lot more hype behind Rui Hachimura’s entrance into the NBA. It will be exponentially greater than that of Yuta Watanabe’s first-year experiences.
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Yuta was buried in the G-League for most of his rookie season, but the title of a first-round pick for Hachimura will propel him in popularity rankings, both in Japan and in the United States. The potential exists for Rui Hachimura to be a top NBA rookie in 2019-20.
The Memphis Grizzlies ended the 2018-19 season with one of the most popular jerseys sold on Japan. It was not because of Mike Conley‘s fourth quarter heroics. It was also not due to Marc Gasol‘s legacy left behind after the infamous NBA Trade Deadline transaction. It was all because of Yuta Watanabe’s popularity in his home country of Japan.
The same should be expected of Rui Hachimura in 2019-20. He will have one of the most popular NBA jerseys in Japan. It should be expected that he will quickly surpass Watanabe’s mark, too, considering a larger role and opportunity in being a potential first-round pick. Simply put, it should not take Hachimura very long to surpass Watanabe’s records (totals) for a Japanese-born player in the NBA — 39 points, 31 rebounds, eight assists, four steals, and one block in 174 minutes.
For Yuta Watanabe, the heat is on. Rui Hachimura looks to take all of his shine from a popularity standpoint, but that should be okay to Yuta as long as he receives more investment from the Memphis Grizzlies organization. Lesser popularity in 2019-20 could still result in a larger role for him on the Grizzlies’ current roster at either wing position.