We’re rolling through the Suns Player Previews this September. Check out all the players and other season preview topics right here: 2023-24 Suns Season Preview Series.
First, we run down a roster that includes only five players from last year’s opening night and just two — Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — who were part of the team-record 64-wins and Finals teams before that. Plus a new coaching staff. And a new owner. Disruption, indeed.
Yet, the Suns are still just as much, if not more, of title contender than ever. As the dust settles, we see Book and DA surrounded by an uber-spending owner, a championship-winning coach, a two-time NBA champ and four-time Gold Medal winning forward, and a third high scoring All-Star (2nd in scoring in 2020 and 2021).
The Suns come into this season with the second-best betting odds to win the West, and fourth-best to win the title. But to do that, their stable of minimum-salary role players will have to step up.
And one of those almost certainly will need to be Yuta Watanabe, who has never played more than 16 minutes per game in a season after becoming only the second Japanese-born player ever to play in the NBA. The Suns are surely hoping Watanabe can make a Torrey Craig type leap from 15-minutes-per-game deep bench guy to major contributor and part-time starter.
Let’s find out more about Watanabe, who the Suns need to have the best season of his career at age 29.
Wing/Forward, 6’9”, 215 pounds, turns 29 in October
The Phoenix Suns inked a two-year veteran-minimum deal with Yuta Watanabe on the first day of free agency this summer, the same day they signed a handful of veterans to similar one or two year deals.
The Suns are Watanabe’s fourth NBA team in six seasons, after two each with the Grizzlies and Raptors and then one career-changing season with the Brooklyn Nets. Watanabe made a name for himself in Nets lineups alongside Kevin Durant. The pair went 17-7 in games they both took the court, while the Nets were just 28-30 in all other games last season. Watanabe made over 50% of his threes in games he played with Durant while averaging more than 20 minutes per game. After the big midseason trade, however, Watanabe lost playing time in a Nets rotation suddenly overflowing with wings. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Royce O’Neal, Dorrian Finney-Smith and Joe Harris all rightly got time over Yuta.
With the top-heavy Suns, however, Watanabe has a chance to get major playing time in lineups with the Suns big four. He’s the perfect body size (6’9”, long arms, passable shot blocking and rebounding rates) and shooting prowess (7 3PA per 100 possessions, 44% 3P% last year) to play the swing forward slot in the same way Torrey Craig, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson did in past years. He won’t be as good as the latter two, who both make $20+ million per year, but he fits the same mold.
How do you go from a 16-minutes-per-game deep backup to regular starter? Just ask Torrey Craig, who Watanabe is partially replacing.
More to come on his strengths and weaknesses.
Give the man his props! As one of their top two players, he led Japan Men’s Basketball to a combined 6-4 record over their last two international competitions. This year’s 3-2 record in the FIBA World Championships helped Japan qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris — the first time Japan had qualified competitively for the Olympics in almost 50 years (They went 0-5 in 2021 Olympics as the host country).
- Watanabe scored his first NBA points against the Phoenix Suns, in 2018 for the Grizzlies
- While Watanabe is the second Japanese player ever to make it, the Suns employed the first: Yuta Tabuse, back in 2004
- That makes the Suns the only NBA team to have signed two different Japanese players
2-years, $5 million
The first year is at the league minimum for a veteran of his five years of service. As a newly signed free agent he cannot be traded until at least December 15.
The second year of Watanabe’s contract is a player option, meaning he has a guaranteed option to make just a little over league minimum at $2.6 million in 2024-25 by the Phoenix Suns. No matter what happens this year on or off the court, he’s got a contract for next year in his back pocket.
Alternately, he can can decline the player option by 6/29/2024 and enter free agency again next summer. He would do this (a) if he wants a new situation and is sure other teams are interested, and/or (b) if he believes someone else wants to pay him more money.
This is a win-win for Watanabe, which is why he took the deal right away.
It’s also a win-win for the Suns for two reasons: (1) because they got value for a league-minimum contract and (2) because he doesn’t get veto rights on trades, given it’s a two-year deal.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Take a look at this mix tape. Watch it on repeat. You can see Watanabe’s abilities on defense, weak side shot blocking, sweet three-point shooting and even putting the ball on the floor to drive in for a score.
How has he never played more than 16 minutes a game?! His shooting was absolutely sublime: last year he was 9th in the league on corner threes at 51.4%, 5th on threes overall at 44.2%, and 22nd in true shooting at 63.7%. You can totally see him fitting seamlessly in the lineup next to the Big Four, like a poor man’s Cameron Johnson.
But he’s not Cameron Johnson and YouTube isn’t real life. He’s only had the one good shooting season, with career averages of just 40% from the field and 35% on threes over four seasons with the Grizzlies and Raptors before the Nets. He does a lot of things, but has no track record of doing any of them very well over multiple seasons.
One Key Factor
To get big minutes, he’s got to be able to hold up defensively against driving ball handlers. Yuta will definitely bring the effort, but it’s all got to be about results. He doesn’t need to be the best defender on the team. Just can’t be the worst.
The Suns defense will be different under Vogel than it was under Monty Williams, but you can expect there will still be a lot of switching. Switching limits the physical toll on injury-prone defenders like Durant, Booker and Beal, by allowing the next man to take your guy off a pick rather than have to fight through it every time. We don’t know if Deandre Ayton will get the Roy Hibbert role? The Anthony Davis role? Or the late-career JaVale McGee role?
We don’t know. But what we do know is this: that fifth starter is going to have to take on a lot on defense during the regular season to cover for Durant/Booker/Beal saving their energy for other things.
So Watanabe will have to be able to switch onto defenders ranging from quick point guards to burly big men. Sometimes back and forth on the same possession. To handle that, he will need to move his feet side to side defensively, stopping the bully-ball drives into contact for a foul call by getting to the defensive spot before the offensive player is past him. Bridges was quick enough to avoid being blown by. Johnson was mostly good on that end, but inconsistent. Craig was less consistent than Johnson. Okogie was pretty good. Damion Lee was so so bad, and sadly Cameron Payne struggled on this as well. Terrence Ross? T.J. Warren? Don’t get me started. You might be surprised to hear that Landry Shamet was kind good on this (staying in front of the ball handler) which was why he got more minutes than you thought he deserved.
Watanabe is going to have to be respectable on an island against a ball handler on defense. You ever hear that saying “when a bear is chasing you, just don’t be the slowest runner”? That same thinking can be applied here.
I think he gets a good role AS LONG AS he continues to hit threes like last season in Brooklyn. I don’t like to predict injuries, so assuming everyone stay healthy most of the year, I think Yuta gets something like this:
- 75 games played, 20 minutes, 8 points (38% 3P), 3 rebounds, 1 block per game.
That may not look great, but here’s a silver lining: If the Suns have tons of injuries again next year, I’d rather see Watanabe be 4th in minutes while guys are out than whoever got 4th in minutes last year through the All-Star break.