MikeCheck: As Grizz teammates advance in FIBA World Cup, Watanabe and Japan build for 2020

MEMPHIS – For a moment, the score didn’t matter.

Yuta Watanabe only wanted his teammates on the court for Japan to focus on the vast experience, the global exposure and the growing expectations that lay ahead. Still, the magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on Watanabe when that capacity crowd in Shanghai roared every time Japan scored.

It didn’t matter that Japan trailed Team USA by nearly 60 at one stage of the game. There was tremendous love for the underdog, coupled with a respect for the way Japan kept scrapping against a squad of NBA stars in the final preliminary game for Group E at the FIBA World Cup.

Yuta Watanabe handles the ball

Yuta Watanabe of Japan in action during the 1st round Group E match between USA and Japan of 2019 FIBA World Cup at the Oriental Sports Center on September 5, 2019 in Shanghai, China. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

These are moments that keep Watanabe encouraged about Japan’s plight, even days after Thursday’s defeat.

“That was a great experience, a great opportunity for us,” Watanabe told Grind City Media from China of what Japan took away from its 98-45 loss to USA as it pushes forward at the World Cup. “When I stepped on the court, it kind of reminded me of a big NBA game. There were a lot of fans and people going crazy. Of course, there were a lot of people cheering for the U.S., but just playing in that arena and competing against the U.S. was a great experience.”

Then, Watananbe was reminded that Japan ultimately won over the crowd and matched Team USA with a 14-14 tie in the final 10-minute quarter of play.

“Yeah, obviously, we were down by 40 or 50,” Watanabe matter-of-factly said through a laugh. “I guess people were kind of feeling bad for us, and just started cheering when we did stuff.”

The Grizzlies’ second-year forward and his native national team certainly have nothing to feel sorry about, despite losing all three preliminary games. As the FIBA World Cup tournament enters the second round this weekend, down to 16 teams still competing to directly qualify for seven spots in next summer’s Olympic field, Watanabe and Japan are locks for the 2020 Games.

As the host country for next summer, Japan is granted automatic entry regardless of its outcomes in the various qualifying tournaments played over a two-year stretch to set the 12-team Olympic field.

For Memphis, Watanabe is a developing hybrid forward who spent last season on a Two-Way contract, splitting time between the Grizzlies and the G League’s Memphis Hustle. But for Japan, he is the 6-9 versatile catalyst who joins rookie NBA lottery pick Rui Hachimura as the marquee faces of the country’s blossoming national program.

With losses to Turkey, Czech Republic and the USA in the opening week of play, Japan is relegated to the Classification Round to determine the global FIBA rankings for final 16 participants in the 32-team World Cup. Through three games, Watanabe has shot 50 percent from the field and averaged 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists while playing a team-high 30.5 minutes a contest.

When I stepped on the court, it kind of reminded me of a big NBA game. There were a lot of fans and people going crazy. Of course, there were a lot of people cheering for the U.S., but just playing in that arena and competing against the U.S. was a great experience.

Yuta Watanabe

His hopes are to use Japan’s remaining Classification games against New Zealand on Saturday and Montenegro on Monday to help teammates build valuable chemistry and continuity moving forward. Japan entered the World Cup ranked 48th in FIBA’s global standings, with Watanabe one of only three players on the roster with NBA regular season, summer league or development league experience.

“We still have two more games to play, and hopefully we can find even more confidence,” Watanabe said. “We didn’t play well against the U.S., but against Czech, we had a great first half. And against Turkey, we were down by 20 but we kept fighting and showed we can compete. It’s tough to play those kinds of styles, but you build confidence and you try to learn everything you can from these games.”

Between his own national team’s games, Watanabe said he’s been able to keep track of how his Grizzlies’ teammates have fared in the tournament spread across China.

On Friday, new Grizzlies guard Marko Guduric scored in double figures for the second time in three games as unbeaten Serbia extended its dominant World Cup run with a 90-47 win over Puerto Rico to open the second round. Serbia, which has won its first four games by an average margin of 40.8 points, has secured a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals. Next up is an epic showdown Sunday against unbeaten Spain, led by former Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Bruno Caboclo blocks Milko Bjelica

Milko Bjelica #51 of Montenegro goes to the basket against Bruno Caboclo #50 of Brazil during FIBA World Cup 2019 at Gymnasium of Youth Olympic Games Sport Park on September 5, 2019 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province of China. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Grizzlies forward Bruno Caboclo and Brazil (3-0) also carried an unbeaten, opening-round record into the weekend, with their next two games against Czech Republic on Saturday and a clash with Team USA on Monday. Caboclo, who converted two 10-day contacts late last season with the Grizzlies into a multiyear deal that runs through next season, has been a breakout defensive performer in the World Cup. The 6-9 forward’s 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steal per game have powered Brazil’s defense, which was key to upsetting Greece and NBA reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round.

Meanwhile, Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas has guided Lithuania into the second round, which starts with Saturday’s huge matchup against France and the NBA’s reigning Defensive player of the Year in Rudy Gobert. Valanciunas has averaged 11 points along with team highs of 8.7 rebounds and 72.2 percent shooting from the field through three games.

“Obviously, I couldn’t watch all the games, but I was able to see some of the box scores,” Watanabe said of the Grizzlies’ World Cup contingent. “We’re all in different places, but it feels good to see and hear they’re all playing well and doing good.”

The FIBA World Cup runs through the championship round on Sept. 15, which is only two weeks before the start of Grizzlies training camp. While bragging rights are still on the line for Memphis players competing for their national teams, they’ll soon come together to build chemistry on a united front at FedExForum.

It’s usually hard to keep in shape during the summer because you don’t always get to play in a lot of games … But I’m in great shape and I feel like I’m ready to soon join [the Grizzlies] for training camp later this month. I’ll be ready.

Yuta Watanabe

It’s been a relentless run for Watanabe, who returned to Japan in the weeks after last regular season ended in April. He returned to play with the Grizzlies in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer league action in July, then journeyed back to Japan to prepare for the World Cup before going to China. After next week, Watanabe will soon head to Memphis to train with a dynamic young group of forwards that includes NBA All-Rookie First Team standout Jaren Jackson Jr. and first-round pick Brandon Clarke, the MVP of the MGM Resorts Summer League in Vegas.

“I feel good,” Watanabe insisted. “It’s usually hard to keep in shape during the summer because you don’t always get to play in a lot of games. But for me, I played games in summer league, a few exhibition games in Japan, and now I’m going to play five total games in the FIBA World Cup. I’m in great shape and I feel like I’m ready to soon join the team for training camp later this month. I’ll be ready.”

Until then, it’s the experience that counts for Watanabe much more than the FIBA scoreboard.

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