The Phoenix Suns signed Yuta Watanabe this past summer, primarily for the dynamics in spacing and abilities to knock down both stand-still and movement shots. He brought with him the deliverables you desire in a three-point shooter: a quick-twitch shot, a career 39% shooter from deep, and 45.7% on catch-and-shoot threes.
In theory, he should sustainably be reliable enough to execute off advantages created by others, as a chess piece to move around the board offensively. Whether it’s one pass away from a primary action, or two to three passes away — where he can play off extra attention garnered by the stars — he’s perfectly positioned for the offensive contexts that the Suns process him through.
He even has abilities off the bounce, to counter the urgent and long closeouts he garners, as well as playing off dribble handoffs.
What’s been most intriguing about him on film, however, has been his defensive decision-making process. Now, no, he’s not a lockdown 1v1 “guard your yard” type defender, nor is he a secondary rim protector, or pesky passing lane prober. When he is though, is a timely rotational piece — with some size — that can be a deterrent by simply being on schedule.
It takes discipline and feel, and many players in his role across the NBA fail to consistently execute in this, but Watanabe consistently shows that he does not have those problems.
I asked Coach Vogel about just that postgame:
“He’s doing a great job for us defensively,” said Vogel.
“Obviously that’s not the strength of his game, but his effort and alertness on that side of the ball, it’s one of the best on our team. I always feel good with him on the floor, and competing at a high level.”
Watanabe is providing a level of disruption and activity in these defensive scenarios that are honestly invaluable. The Suns had a 93.3 defensive rating with him on — the best of all main rotation players from Sunday — which is not a direct testament to him, but we’re going to look at some of the film to support why he is a piece to all of that.
Notice firstly, how he shifts his positioning as the screen is rejected and the Suns “ice” the ball handler a bit, which engaged Eubanks in his drop coverage. You can’t effectively “ice” and be directional at the point of attack, without smart help defenders, with the capability of being active with size.
No stat here, but because Watanabe is peeled in early as the lowman, Eubanks has less stress recovering to the roller and can get up an effective contest without fouling after Watanabe forces the angle switch at the cup with a vertical contest.
Similar scenario here, only the strong side is emptied — giving more range to cover and be timely, in rotations.
As he rotates over again, in support to put the fire out, notice his athleticism and size enable him early positioning, and how his presence affects the attempt at the basket.
Even more, and especially in a disadvantageous size discrepancy, notice the angle he takes into the vertical contest.
All of this, paired with great timing to be the second jumper, enables him perfect secondary rim protection on this rep.
This athletic maneuver, in its timelines, cadence, and required dexterity, resembles that of a “Middle Blocker,” in volleyball, protecting against opposing hits at the net.
It’s the same skill sets being used here, from balance to timing, and vertical reach — all very impressive flashes of athleticism.
Here is a simple yet extremely effective closeout.
This Is one of the hardest defensive movement patterns to execute, as we see tons of played clipped as opponents close their air space. Notice the proximity conceded for the “landing spot” of the shooter, from Watanabe, in addition to his veer off to the left which ensures no contact is made.
They’re then off to the races and he’s able to knock down a 3 + 1, to cap off the sequence.
The most impressive part of the game from him, as he meets Duren at the summit — high pointing the pass with him — we see Watanabe with more athleticism, timing, and balance.
Again, just like a middle blocker in volleyball, he’s in position early enough with his rotation and brings the extinguisher in activity and promptness to put the fire out — yet again. Notice his alertness, though, and the Pistons cleverly attempt to have Joe Harris — a premium shooter — run the baseline to clear the side for the roll.
Watanabe’s alertness and awareness keep him a step ahead with his decision-making, and he pieces together another gem.
Here, we see him 2.9’ing as the lowman again.
This time, however, the Suns go with some overload help with Eubanks across the helpline. That requires Watanabe to be on alert for both a baseline cut and a dive cut.
He’s early and on alert for both, then finishes it off with supplementary vertical contesting, in tandem with Eubanks, to put out yet another fire.
Here, he just has to remain decisive, as he showed earlier.
The slightest hesitation with both a prolific pick-and-roll playmaker in Cunningham, and an athletic roller in Duren, renders you to their mercy. You can see him hold himself to account twice before heading back on offense.
There are these moments at times, but the promptness shown primarily above often persists.
In a different defensive context here, the Pistons bring him into action with “77.”
He does a great job with the aggressive switch up, and hedge out — stagnating movement through the three-player action.
Does an even better job, then, getting back in position, slightly navigating the screen, then showing lateral quickness to cut off a drive.
Finally, he cuts off one more drive. Still, he bails Cunningham out — after doing a sensational job sitting in his defensive chair and sliding — by coming out of that and overzealously contesting the late-clock attempt.
These are contexts where, in screen navigation and defensive in isolation, he’ll be forced to defend through a playoff lens.
He clearly is capable of being solid enough, but doing so without fouling in the end, will be important for him.
Yuta Watanabe provides plenty of value in his spacing, shooting (and play off of that prowess), and abilities to cut, but these moments on defense will determine just how playable he’ll be over the course of the regular season, but even more so come playoff time.
Nonetheless, at the moment, he’s consistently prompt in help, extinguishing fires with promptness as the lowman, and active in his minutes on the floor.