SALT LAKE CITY – If the collective mission of forwards Yuta Watanabe and Julian Washburn was to pick up this summer where they left off late last season, then consider two of the Grizzlies’ biggest development projects off to a promising start.
Call it forward progress.
The next step is to build on their dominant Salt Lake City Summer League debut after they combined for 40 points and 14 rebounds in Monday’s 85-68 victory over the host Jazz at Vivint SmartHome Arena. Both Watanabe and Washburn spent last season on Two-Way contracts, bouncing between the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle and the Grizzlies.
Now, they aim to solidify regular NBA roster spots next season. That process begins this week in Salt Lake City, where the Grizzlies are competing in the first of two summer league stops over the next two weeks. There is certainly an urgency in the approach for Watanabe and Washburn, who will benefit from starting roles and extended playing time in the four-team Salt Lake City league that might not exist when the scene shifts next week to the NBA’s comprehensive Las Vegas Summer League.
“This is a big time in a big summer for me,” said Washburn, a 27-year-old journeyman hoping to transition from a Two-Way NBA/G League contract to a standard free agent deal for next season. “I’m playing for, hopefully, a new contract. I just have to keep playing with confidence and doing what I know I can do – and that’s shooting the ball and playing great defense.”
Washburn figured he was in for a productive outing when he made his first three-pointer early in Monday’s game. Then he drilled two more shots and ended up knocking down 5-of-6 from 3-point range and 7-of-10 overall from the field to finish with 20 points against the Jazz. The 6-foot-8 Washburn started at small forward Monday but has also seen time at shooting guard for the Grizzlies, who have been unsettled at both wing spots for the past two seasons because of injuries and attrition.
I’m just thankful that these guys found me and created easy shots for me. All I had to do was knock them down. Working with these guys so much has built my confidence to the point it’s a great advantage.Julian Washburn
“It’s always easier when you make that first shot, so when I made it, I kind of knew I was going to have a pretty big game,” said Washburn, who shot 46.0 percent from 3-point range in G League games last season but struggled from that distance in 18 NBA appearances when called up to the Grizzlies. “I’m just thankful that these guys found me and created easy shots for me. All I had to do was knock them down. Working with these guys so much has built my confidence to the point it’s a great advantage.”
Meanwhile, Watanabe is hoping to build momentum that will carry him into his second season after he became just the second Japanese player to appear in an NBA game last season. Having bulked up 10 pounds this summer, the 6-foot-9 Watanabe showed improved ball-handling and footwork during his 27 minutes of action Monday at power forward. The upper-body strength he gained allowed Watanabe to complete a three-point play when he was fouled in the lane on a contested shot. That play came during a stretch when the Grizzlies were building their largest lead at 19 points.
I’ve worked so hard this summer. My skills and confidence got so much better. My mindset is always to play hard, no matter what.Yuta Watanabe
“It shows that I’m able to do a lot of things on the court,” said Watanabe, who signed with the Grizzlies last season after going undrafted in 2018 out of George Washington University. “I’ve worked so hard this summer. My skills and confidence got so much better. My mindset is always to play hard, no matter what.”
The Grizzlies are reshaping their roster this offseason to build around NBA All-Rookie First Team power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and point guard Ja Morant, who was the No. 2 overall pick in last month’s draft. Surrounding them with versatile playmakers who can shoot, handle and defend multiple positions is a priority. Watanabe and Washburn are positioned to make strong first impressions on new coach Taylor Jenkins, whose roster will include a few more key additions on the wing and at power forward when the NBA moratorium ends July 6 and pending trades become official.
With me being the new coach, you get to learn about these guys – not just as basketball players, but as people – and build relationships. It’s going to be a fun two weeks. It was great to start with a win.Taylor Jenkins
“The biggest thing about summer league is guys get different opportunities,” Jenkins said. “With me being the new coach, you get to learn about these guys – not just as basketball players, but as people – and build relationships. It’s going to be a fun two weeks. It was great to start with a win.”
TAKE TWO: SUMMER SCHOOL IN SESSION FOR JACKSON
Two weeks ago, Jackson tried his hand at sideline reporting as a guest contributor to NBA TV’s coverage of the NBA Draft. This week, Jackson is essentially an apprentice on Jenkins’ summer staff.
Donning a coaching polo shirt and sitting on the bench, Jackson offered encouragement and pointed out things he saw on the court as he communicated with several players who pushed through Monday’s win over the Jazz. Although the second-year power forward is sitting out of summer league games, Jackson is finding plenty of ways to contribute to the team’s development in Salt Lake City.
“From a leadership standpoint, I’m just trying to make sure everyone is comfortable and the new guys understand that this isn’t just like having fun,” Jackson told Grind City Media. “This is real serious development time, and it’s something we’re taking seriously as a team.”
Along with Jackson, young returning veterans Dillon Brooks and Bruno Caboclo are also with the team in Salt Lake City for support, despite not playing summer league games. At 19 years old, Jackson is already taking on a leadership role and is following through on his commitment to get quickly on the same page with Jenkins as he installs his system and builds his staff.
Jackson has monitored the team’s summer league preparation and has gotten in some of his own conditioning work as he looks to build on a promising rookie season. Limited to 58 games by a thigh bruise that shut him down after February’s All-Star break, Jackson still became the first rookie in NBA history to post at least 50 blocks, 50 steals and 50 made threes while shooting 50 percent overall.
And, on top of that, I’m just hanging out. I like everybody here, and I’m cool with everybody here. These guys are my dogs. There’s no reason I wouldn’t be out here with them.Jaren Jackson Jr.
“It’s just to also get my rhythm back, because I haven’t been playing, so I’m doing my own workouts every day,” Jackson said. “And, on top of that, I’m just hanging out. I like everybody here, and I’m cool with everybody here. These guys are my dogs. There’s no reason I wouldn’t be out here with them.”
UP NEXT: GRIZZLIES VS SPURS
The Grizzlies (1-0) face the Spurs (1-0) in Tuesday’s early game, with San Antonio coming off a 97-89 win over the Cavaliers on Monday. The Spurs’ three most recent first-round draft picks were all in action, with rookie Slovenian forward Luka Samanic (No. 19 overall), rookie guard Keldon Johnson(No. 29 overall) and second-year guard Lonnie Walker IV (No. 18 overall in 2018) combining for 35 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and three steals in their Salt Lake City Summer League opener.
The Grizzlies want to carry Monday’s defensive effort into Tuesday’s game. Memphis held Utah to just 36.7 percent shooting and scored 23 points off turnovers. But the Grizzlies will need to limit their own turnovers after committing a game-high 20 on Monday and also allowing 14 offensive rebounds.
“It was a great learning opportunity,” Jenkins said as the Grizzlies regroup for the second of three games in as many days. “We made some mistakes early, but at the end of the day, if we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to make them (being) aggressive. Guys got better throughout, and that’s the biggest takeaway for me. We’ll go back and watch film and find ways to clean up and get better.”
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