Basketball: Grizzlies' Yuta Watanabe becomes second Japanese NBA player, hopes to inspire next generation

Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe goes to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Troy Daniels at the FedExForum, in Memphis on Oct 28, 2018.
Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe goes to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Troy Daniels at the FedExForum, in Memphis on Oct 28, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe, only the second Japanese player in NBA history, hopes to inspire more young basketball players in his homeland after making a historic weekend debut.

The 24-year-old from Kagawa scored two points and grabbed two rebounds for the Grizzlies in a 117-96 home victory Saturday over the Phoenix Suns.

"I was able to play my role in the four minutes of game time, play hard defence and once we had possession, run as hard as I can," he said. "I just wanted to cover the fundamentals and I think I was able to accomplish that." The only other NBA player from Japan was guard Yuta Tabuse, who played four games for the Phoenix Suns in November and December 2004.

"I don't really pay too much attention if I'm the second, third or fourth Japanese player to play in the NBA," Watanabe said. "As a basketball player, I want to play in an environment where the team needs me.

"My family, previous coaches, friends, and fans are all very happy for me and I'm just glad I was able to play and advance this chapter of my career."

Watanabe played four years at George Washington University in Washington DC, earning Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year honours this past season.

"When I decided to come play for George Washington University, I was hoping I could be a positive influence on the younger generation of players," Watanabe said. "I'm not sure how much I'm contributing but I hope to be on the court more and inspire kids in Japan."

Watanabe played for the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA Summer League then signed with Memphis in July. He has spent time with the Grizzlies' development team working on his skills to make the most of his NBA opportunity.

Watanabe had a less than encouraging pre-season debut for the Grizzlies - within seconds of checking in against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct 5, he found himself on the wrong end of a posterising dunk. He also missed both his field goal attempts.

But he recovered to post a much improved performance the next day against the Indiana Pacers, putting up 11 points and nailing the game-tying three-pointer that sent the game into overtime.

"I think it's important to focus on your strengths," Watanabe said. "The Grizzlies are a really good defensive team and I would like to improve my defence skills to fit within the team culture.

"Another element is the shooting accuracy. If I can shoot a higher field goal percentage, there's potential for more playing time. Physical strength is also another area I need to focus on, not just now but throughout my career." The Grizzlies are off to a 3-2 start to the new NBA season. They next face Washington at home on Tuesday.