The Phoenix Suns are about to enter a crunch portion of their offseason, as they look to add competent role players to the core already established. Turning Chris Paul and Landry Shamet into Bradley Beal was an extremely impressive magic trick from owner Mat Ishbia and the front office, but they aren’t done pulling rabbits out of hats just yet.
With the new CBA officially handed over to teams, and the predictable ensuing panic and dread setting in for capologists, the Suns are already in a precarious spreadsheet position because of how much money they will be paying Beal, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker for years to come. Deandre Ayton, still somehow on this team, is owed $102 million over the next three seasons.
Finding players who will take the minimum to join the party, but who also still have some juice left, will be tough, but none fit the bill better than Yuta Watanabe.
According to Marc Stein, Watanabe and Mike James have emerged as two players who the Suns are keeping tabs on this summer. Both players make a lot of sense for different reasons, and before diving into the perfect fit that Watanabe represents, a quick word on James.
At 32-years-old and having just won the French championship with AS Monaco Basket (helping defeat Victor Wembanyama and Bilal Coulibaly no less), James is a friend of Durant’s and when last in the league with the Brooklyn Nets in 2020-21, shot 35.5 percent from deep. He is an obvious and affordable choice, much better than some of the players the Suns are working out.
Back to Watanabe, and what a get he would be for the Suns if they could afford him. He last played with Durant on the Nets, and for a period of time was the best 3-point shooter in the entire NBA. This was as a result of playing with Durant and Kyrie Irving, and there is no telling how many open looks he would get alongside Booker and Beal, as well as Durant.
Watanabe only played 16 minutes per night last year, and averaged 5.6 points per contest. Numbers that may make it seem like he could be gotten for the veteran’s minimum, and that is a point we will return to. At 28-years-old, he is only beginning to get any traction in the league in the last 18 months or so.
His real value comes in the fact he shot a ridiculous 44.4 percent from 3-point range last year, on 2.3 attempts per game. A career high in attempts, and one that is surely going to go north again wherever he lands. In Watanabe’s first two months of the season, when Durant was still on the team, he shot over 55 percent from deep, and in November took 4.1 efforts per game.
That is an insane level of production that lasted roughly a month, and even beyond that Watanabe still shot over 40 percent for the rest of the season. At 6’9″ and with the ability to make opponents at least work on the defensive end, another huge plus for the Suns if they could snag him, why is Watanabe even in the conversation as a player the Suns could afford?
There was a puzzling stretch in March where he somehow shot a scarcely believable 9.1 percent from beyond the arc, and only took 11 shots from deep all month. Watanabe had had some niggling injuries at this point, but this was also the first full month after Durant had been traded to the Suns.
At that point the Nets were figuring out what they had with new players Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, as well as Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith, whom they got from the Dallas Mavericks in the Irving deal that had also taken place the previous month.
The new direction for that franchise came to a head in their swift postseason drubbing from the Philadelphia 76ers, with Watanabe only playing in five minutes in the entire series. Clearly then his best work is going to be done next to stars like Durant and Booker, and it is also highly likely the Nets don’t see a future with him on the roster either.
That should make getting Watanabe an easier prospect for the Suns, with the hope that his desire to win a ring in this window he has manufactured for himself in the NBA and his fall from grace with the Nets allowing them to sign him to a small deal.
But there are teams with a lot more cap space than the Suns, and who have to spend it somewhere, who may see Watanabe as a 28-year-old gunner who can help take a young team back to the playoffs. The Orlando Magic are one such team, and who would have plenty of reasons to want to sign Watanabe to a multiple-year deal.
That is all that is stopping the Suns from adding a player who would solve so many of their problems. A guy who will make opponents have to pick their poison between double-teaming a superstar or leaving a 45 percent shooter from 3-point range open. One who is also going to at least make an effort defensively, and who could still go up a notch or two on that end.
Watanabe is a player the Suns have to pursue and get signed quickly. Many other teams out there are going to strike out on their first, second and third options this offseason. As that happens, the allure of Watanabe increases. If the front office can get him to Arizona though, it would be a real addition to a rotation that badly needs it. It will just come down to finances.