One of the Phoenix Suns’ summer acquisitions in Yuta Watanabe bowed out of FIBA World Cup medal contention on Tuesday. A 109-89 defeat by Australia sending the country home, after it had picked up its first ever victory against European opposition in their previous game against Finland.
Despite this, Watanabe can hold his head high as his 24 points and seven rebounds in a team high 36.5 minutes of action ensured his home country were not embarrassed. Watanabe didn’t have much help all tournament, although center Josh Hawkinson feasted on the Boomers to the tune of 33 points, but all of that will change when he heads to The Valley.
Watanabe’s performances this summer ensuring that Suns fans should be extremely excited by what he will bring to the roster once the season begins.
Watanabe saved his best for last against Australia, having had a couple of uneven showings leading up to that game. In the opener against Germany, an ugly 81-63 loss, he had a team high 20 points, although Watanabe was a miserable 2-of-10 from deep.
A far cry from the marksman who played for the Brooklyn Nets last season, and who shot a ridiculous 44.4 percent from 3-point range. Next up was a battling performance in the win over Finland. Watanabe only had four points total, but he was clearly hampered by injury. Despite this, he did anything he could to help his team get over the line.
That he only scored one field goal total (the other two points were free throws) can actually be viewed as a positive for the Suns. Watanabe is able to go off in certain spots, and help his team to win. On occasions when he doesn’t have it, and even when he is far from 100 percent, he is still influencing the game in other areas.
Everybody respects Watanabe’s ability to stretch the floor at this point, and it keeps opponents honest always. Despite struggling to have an impact with his scoring, Watanabe still used his tall body to hound opponents. This was more useful than usual given that Japan were a pretty undersized roster for the most part.
Then came the crowning moment for him personally against Australia, going 60 percent from deep and making seven of his nine attempts at the charity stripe. That is Watanabe at his best, making plenty of shots away from the rim, but getting to the bucket in a way that is still underrated.
Now imagine how many open looks he is going to get playing alongside Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal. Certainly there’s going to be a lot more space to operate and to get shots off compared to sharing the court with Yuki Kawamura (5’8″) and Yuki Togashi (5’6″).
Watanabe went into the FIBA World Cup not only as his country’s best player, but one of the poster players of the tournament given it was taking place in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. He didn’t always play like it, but to be able to carry himself in this manner, before reverting back to a role player come October, is the kind of experience that will be priceless to the Suns.
They already know he can shoot the ball well, and defend at a higher than expected level. But Watanabe can also deal with the pressure of being the go-to guy who his teammates look to, and even though he didn’t always deliver, he still had a positive impact on the game in other ways. Never was this more true than in that win over Finland, when he played nearly 30 minutes.
Imagine how useful that is going to be for the Suns next season, knowing Watanabe can start or come off the bench, while still having a positive impact. For those who think the moment may be too big for him playing for one of the true contenders, we can now point to his FIBA play and confidently say that will not be the case.
Watanabe’s FIBA experience didn’t end the way he wanted it to, but he has not done his own stock any harm here. Already established in the NBA, he could end up being the fifth starter for this Suns group, because of his length and shot-making ability. His battling display against Australia will live long in the memory as well.