Yuta Watanabe’s sheepish chuckle says he doesn’t approve of the nickname. George Washington teammates playfully call him the LeBron James of Japan anyway.
Watanabe can’t exactly argue. The Colonials got a first-hand glimpse at his star power in his homeland last summer. Billboards with Watanabe’s face touted the exhibition tour. Thousands of fans packed each gym and sprang to their feet to cheer all his baskets. Afterward, he took the mic to thank them for coming and then squeezed in as many autographs and photos as a busy itinerary allowed.
It was all a bit overwhelming for everybody.
“I knew I was kind of famous in Japan,” Watanabe said, “but I didn’t realize it was that much.”
Dubbed the “Chosen One” by a Japanese newspaper before his college career had even begun, Watanabe is used to the weight of expectations. Through it all, the 6-9, 196-pound guard has managed to keep developing — slowly but surely — at GW.
Watanabe has career-best averages in almost every category in his junior season. He’s posted 13.4 points and 5 rebounds per game, entering an Atlantic 10 matchup against George Mason Wednesday on ASN. He’s also emerged as a defensive stopper, using his length to harass opposing guards of all sizes.
“He’s a special young man,” GW interim coach Maurice Joseph said. “I’m proud of how far he’s progressed, and I’m excited to see where his work ethic can take him.”
For all the fanfare that came along with being just the fourth Japanese-born player in Division I hoops, Watanabe needed time to grow on and off the court. A year of prep school eased the transition, but he still had a lot to learn upon arriving at GW in the summer of 2014.
Watanabe was struck most of all by the attention to detail. In Japan, he was used to being far and away the best player on the court. With the Colonials, he realized he’d need to sweat the small stuff to earn a role.
His body wasn’t ready for the jump in competition, either. He mostly had to stick to shooting outside until he added the muscle needed to get to the hoop off the dribble and battle for rebounds.
Doing it all while speaking a new language added to the challenge.
“There were lots of times that I wanted to say something, but because of my English level, I couldn’t say exactly the words that I wanted to say,” Watanabe said. “That was really tough.”
Piece-by-piece, Watanabe has rounded out his game. He’s become versatile enough to give Joseph options. He can play shooting guard in a big lineup or power forward when the Colonials go small.
Watanabe was more of a cog in the machine last season, helping a veteran-loaded squad claim 28 wins and the NIT title. With a decorated senior class moving on, he’s become more of a focal point on the scouting report. He’s been mostly consistent, save for a seven-game absence due to a calf injury.
“I’ve got a lot of things to do, but I feel like if I don’t do it, the team won’t win,” Watanabe said. “I’m doing it because I want to win.”
Watanabe has always had a flair for highlight-reel dunks, but he’s found more ways to score around the rim. He's developing his jumper, too. Thanks to improved footwork, his 37 percent shooting from 3-point range this season is the best mark of his career.
Watanabe’s biggest improvements have come on defense. He’s learned the intensity needed to lock down an opposing star and come to thrive on the job. His long strides and reach have proven equally effective against lanky wings and tiny guards.
Last March, Watanabe showcased the extreme of that strategy in an NIT win over Monmouth. He put in extra film work leading up to get ready for 5-8 dynamo Justin Robinson and then held him to six points on 2-of-16 shooting. It worked again earlier this month when he held down Davidson’s 6-0 Jack Gibbs in a home victory.
“He’s a diamond in the rough, man,” said Joseph, who assumed interim duties after Mike Lonergan was fired in September. “Not a lot of players are willing to guard the other team’s best player on a nightly basis and also have the tools and ability and quickness and athleticism and strength to do it.”
Along the way, Watanabe has developed into a leader in the locker room. At first, it was his daily energy and crowd-pleasing celebrations that made a statement. He’s found more chances this season to speak up.
Those moments — whether it’s joking around before practice or adding encouragement to an in-game huddle — show how far he’s come. He took an English as a second language course early in his first semester on campus, but he said he’s picked up a lot simply from hanging around his teammates and coaches.
“I think my English is getting better,” Watanabe said. “It’s still kind of bad, but it’s getting better.”
The Colonials got a better appreciation for Watanabe’s popularity back home during their 11 days in Japan last August. It was a no-brainer for them to visit a country that sends more clicks to their official website than the U.S.
For Watanabe, the non-hoops highlight was a trip with a few teammates to one of his favorite restaurants. It was a bonus that he led GW in scoring over four exhibition victories. The Japanese national team had trouble matching up with its top player on the Colonials side.
Joseph was impressed with the way Watanabe handled the unavoidable spotlight. The coach won’t soon forget the woman who without warning tossed her baby to Watanabe out of a crowd and quickly snapped a photo.
“Over there, he’s a rock star,” Joseph said.
Japanese fans hope Watanabe becomes their second native son in the NBA and first since Yuta Tabuse played four games with the Phoenix Suns in 2004.
Watanabe laid out that dream to reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post during his debut season with the Colonials. Two years later, he’s improved his game and perspective.
“I feel like I have a better understanding of what I need to do to reach my goal,” Watanabe said. “I feel like my goal is getting closer.”
Eric Detweiler is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @EDetweiler.