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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Analysis: Yuta Watanabe Makes a Smart Choice in Pursuing Move to B.League

Considering the ups and downs of his time in the NBA, now's an ideal time for Yuta Watanabe to begin the next chapter of his career in Japan as a veteran star.

After six seasons in the NBA, Yuta Watanabe is approaching the crossroads of his basketball career.

The hard-working, 206-cm small forward, who turns 30 on October 13, 2024, remains at the peak of his physical powers.

But it's the notion here that he needs to regularly play in games to be productive. In addition, meaningful playing time is, obviously, a top priority as he enters what's likely the latter half of his career.

On Friday, April 19, Watanabe revealed that he plans to pursue playing opportunities in the B.League for the 2024-25 season, signaling the expected end of his NBA career, even though he still has one year remaining on his NBA contract ($2.65 million USD, or about ¥410 million JPY).

Yuta Watanabe Discusses His Decision

Speaking on Instagram Live, he explained his decision rationally and thoughtfully. "I just want to play basketball [and] I want to step into the game and do what I do in practice," Watanabe said.

Added the Japan national team standout, "I grinded through my 20s but now I hope to play basketball the way I like."

Yuta Watanabe
Yuta Watanabe dribbles in the first quarter of a FIBA Basketball World Cup classification round match against Venezuela on August 31, 2023, at Okinawa Arena. (KYODO)

Watanabe's decision to seek a more visible role as a player comes a year after he helped Akatsuki Japan qualify for the Olympic men's basketball tournament for the first time since the 1976 Montreal Games. (As the Olympic host nation in 2021, Japan received an automatic berth in the Tokyo tourney.)

In October 2023, this reporter spoke to a well-connected Japanese basketball insider, a former bj-league team president before the merger with the NBL that established the B.League in 2016. The source said that Watanabe will finish his career in Japan, adding that he expected the left-handed shooter to join the championship-chasing Alvark Tokyo (44-11 through April 20) in the near future.

Yuta Watanabe
Yuta Watanabe, seen in an April 2023 file photo, is recognized for his outside shooting skills. (NBAE/GETTY IMAGES/via KYODO)

Yuta Watanabe: A Look Back at His NBA Career

Watanabe bounced around the NBA as a non-drafted player out of George Washington University in 2018. He became the second Japanese NBA player, following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, who played four games for the Phoenix Suns in 2004.

To his credit, Watanabe showcased his skills in the NBA G League from the get-go, earning opportunities to play for the Memphis Grizzlies (2018-20), Toronto Raptors (2020-22), and Brooklyn Nets (2022-23). He then joined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent in the summer of 2023. 

Watanabe was traded from the Suns to the Grizzlies in February 2024 after appearing in 29 of Phoenix's first 51 games. He then played in only five more games the rest of the season. Injuries and personal time off were cited as reasons he missed the majority of Memphis' games after the trade.

As he reiterated on Instagram Live, Watanabe vowed to persevere despite setbacks and disappointments in the NBA.

"My goal throughout my 20s was to keep working in America, regardless of the situation. Never give up, no matter what," Watanabe said on Instagram Live. "It was fun at times but also a lot of hard work."

The Japanese fan favorite appeared in 213 total NBA games, making 30 starts in his six seasons. He averaged 4.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.6 assists. 

Watanabe played in a career-best 58 games for the Nets in 2022-23 and averaged 5.6 points, also a career-high total.

He had his best overall NBA game on December 26, 2021, for the Raptors against the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

It's just a shoe!

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Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani smacks a double in the fifth inning against the New York Mets on April 20 at Dodger Stadium. (KYODO)

Baseball

Ohtani Homerless Streak Extends to Seven Games

Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani was still pursuing of his 176th MLB career home run heading into the weekend of April 19-21.

In the series opener against the visiting New York Mets on Friday, April 19, Ohtani was 1-for-4 in LA's 9-4 loss. It was the sixth consecutive game in which he didn't knock the ball over the fence in fair territory.

That streak reached seven games a day later, when Ohtani was 1-for-2 with a double and three walks in a 6-4 loss.

Ohtani is tied with former MLB slugger Hideki Matsui for the most career homers by a Japanese player.

The pride of Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, slugged his 175th MLB round-tripper on April 12 against the San Diego Padres.

Ohtani is batting .359 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 23 games through Saturday.

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San Diego Padres starter Yu Darvish pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on April 14. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Darvish Placed on 15-Day Injured List

Due to neck tightness, San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish has been placed on the 15-day injured list, the National League West club announced on Wednesday, April 17.

Darvish, who has made five starts this season for the Padres, lasted five innings in his most recent start on Sunday, April 14 at Dodger Stadium. In that game, he allowed four hits and three runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

For Darvish, the move to the injured list is retroactive to Sunday.

He is 0-1 with a 4.18 ERA this season with 10 walks and 22 strikeouts in 22⅔ innings. 

Detroit Tigers hurler Kenta Maeda fires a pitch to a Texas Rangers batter on April 18 at Comerica Park. (KYODO)

Tigers' Maeda Struggles in 4th Start of 2024

The visiting Texas Rangers pounced on Detroit Tigers right-hander Kenta Maeda on Thursday, April 18 at Comerica Park.

Maeda (0-1 in four starts) allowed seven hits, including three home runs and six runs (five earned) in a shaky 2⅔ innings. He walked two and struck out two.

To their credit, the Tigers rallied to tie it at 7-7 in the fourth. But the Rangers rallied late to win it 9-7.

It was a frustrating performance for the 36-year-old Maeda, who got a no-decision.

"I can't throw anything comfortably," Maeda was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. 

The veteran starter added, "I know the things that I need to fix, but my body has not really allowed me to. [And] I don't know how the [elbow] surgery [in September 2021] has affected my performance."

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Kento Momota speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on April 18. (KYODO)

Badminton 

Former World No 1 Momota is Retiring from International Competition

Kento Momota reached his peak as a badminton star in 2018 and 2019, winning back-to-back world titles.

Now, at age 29, the former world No 1 is stepping away from international badminton. 

Momota, currently ranked No 52 in the world, didn't qualify to represent Japan at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Therefore, he decided, it's time to retire from the global badminton scene.

"I've realized I can no longer get back to the point where I'm aiming to be No 1 in the world again," Momota was quoted as saying by Reuters at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday, April 18.

He then said, "I had a very fulfilling career playing for the national team."

Kento Momota in a September 2018 file photo. (KYODO)

Momota is set to make his final appearance as a Japan national team representative at the Thomas & Uber Cup, which starts on April 27 in Chengdu, China. He plans to continue playing in domestic tournaments in Japan. 

In January 2020, after winning the Malaysia Masters, the Kagawa Prefecture native was a passenger in a van in Kuala Lumpur when the van collided with a truck. Momota survived the accident, but the driver of the van died. He sustained a broken right eye socket, a serious setback that caused double vision and nearly a one-year absence from competition.

Although he represented Japan at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Momoto was eliminated in the group stage of the men's singles tournament. 

In the past few years, he has not regained the overpowering form that led to his all-time men's record of 11 men's singles titles in one year (2019) in Badminton World Federation competitions.

Kento Momota in a December 2020 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Momota Details His Challenges Over the Past Few Years

Looking back on his career in the aftermath of the highway accident, Momota told reporters, "I had eye surgery and I was seeing double, and] I couldn't move on the court the way I wanted to. I'd get tired like I never used to," Olympics.com reported. 

He added, "I tried, but I just felt it was no longer possible to keep up with the world's best players."

For Momota, the realization that his days as a badminton star are behind him impacted his decision to step away from international competition.

"I couldn't play badminton the way I wanted to," he said, referring to recent years.

But Momota expressed pride in sticking with the sport he loves despite the obstacles he faced to chase his dreams.

"Ever since I took up badminton, the Olympics has been my dream stage," he said, according to Olympics.com. "I was so happy when I made it there. The result was frustrating but even when I'm done internationally, I'll leave with no regrets."

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Kashiwa Reysol midfielder Matheus Savio dribbles the ball in the first half against the Urawa Reds on April 12 at Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium. (KYODO)

Soccer 

Reysol's Savio Leads the J.League in Assists

Early in the 2024 J.League season, Kashiwa Reysol midfielder Matheus Savio is making a significant impact for his team.

Through Friday, April 12, the 27-year-old Brazilian had registered a league-best four assists in eight matches.

Savio's goal-producing passes have not gone unnoticed.

Two of those assists came in 1-0 Reysol victories, on March 9 against Jubilo Iwata and on April 12 versus the Urawa Reds.

In addition, Savio's two other assists occurred in a pair of 1-1 draws: on March 30 in a clash with Albirex Niigata and on April 7 against Tokyo Verdy.

Savio has also scored two goals this season.

In the 2023 campaign, he had seven goals and 10 assists in 31 matches.

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Yokohama F Marinos player Jun Amano (right) and Ulsan Hyundai's Seung Beom Ko compete in an Asian Champions League semifinal first-leg match on April 14 in Ulsan, South Korea. (Soo Hyeon Kim/REUTERS)

Ulsan Beat Marinos 1-0 in 1st Leg of Asian Champions League Semifinals

Dong Gyeong Lee scored in the 19th minute as Ulsan Hyundai defeated Yokohama F Marinos 1-0 in an Asian Champions League semifinal first-leg match on Wednesday, April 17 in Ulsan, South Korea.

Yokohama, appearing in the tournament's semifinals for the first time, now shifts its focus to the second leg at home on April 24. 

Despite the loss, Marinos manager Harry Kewell insisted his team had a strong performance on Wednesday night in South Korea.

"I thought we did extremely well," Kewell told reporters. "I felt we dominated the match and yes, they had chances but I felt those chances from our own kind of mistakes."

The manager added, "We were working a certain way as a team and we put Ulsan in a box."

Can Marinos become the second J.League club in as many years to win the Asian Champions League title?

The Urawa Reds accomplished the feat on May 6, 2023, at Saitama Stadium, winning their third continental crown and first since 2017.

In the 2024 final, the Ulsan-Marinos winner will face either Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal or the United Arab Emirates' Al-Ain, who are squaring off in the other semifinal series, in the two-leg finals in May.

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Quote of the Week

"We were able to do a lot of what we prepared for, and our defense was also very good."

―Saitama Wild Knights hooker Atsushi Sakate analyzes his team's 40-7 victory over Japan Rugby League One opponent Toyota Verblitz on April 20 in Nagoya, Sankei Sports reported. The Wild Knights improved their league-best record to 14-0.


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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