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What Phoenix Suns can expect from spot-up sniper Yuta Watanabe

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
August 7, 2023
Here's a look at what the Phoenix Suns can expect from spot-up shooter Yuta Watanabe after signing him in 2023 NBA free agency

In their second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns badly needed someone who could hit a 3 off the bench. Bradley Beal was the crown jewel of the Suns’ offseason, but landing Yuta Watanabe (while also bringing back the ever-consistent Damion Lee) addresses that particular need in a big way.

Watanabe doesn’t project to be a starting-caliber player, given that he’s only started nine games over the course of his five-year career. His 5.6 points and 2.4 rebounds in 16.0 minutes a night last year don’t scream “fifth starter” quite like Josh Okogie’s point-of-attack defense or Keita Bates-Diop’s two way versatility.

But the 28-year-old wing — who’s also the second Japanese player to ever play in the NBA — felt like a great fit for Phoenix entering free agency. Aside from playing with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets for the first half of the season, Watanabe’s trademark 3-point shooting made him a sensible veteran minimum target for multiple outlets, including The Athletic and yours truly here at PHNX Sports.

His addition was the initial cherry on top of a jam-packed first hour of free agency, later bolstered with another cherry in Eric Gordon. The Suns have more firepower coming off their bench next season, and the floor-spacing around Durant, Beal and Devin Booker should be even better.

The question is, where does Yuta Watanabe shine as a 3-point shooter, and where else can he help the Suns? Just as we’ve done with Lee, Okogie, Bates-Diop, Gordon, Toumani Camara, Jordan Goodwin, Bol Bol, Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks, it’s time to examine Watanabe’s game and set realistic expectations for the upcoming season.

Danger’s just around the corner with “Big Shotanabe”

Let’s not bury the lede: Yuta Watanabe was lights out from 3-point range last year. He shot a career-high 44.4 percent from deep, which would’ve ranked fifth among all players in the NBA had he qualified for the league leaderboards by making at least 82 treys.

Even if he fell short in that regard, Watanabe was a reliable, high-level spot-up threat. He shot 45.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, which ranked fourth among all players with at least 100 attempts. Those catch-and-shoot looks constituted a whopping 129 of his 133 total attempts on the season. He didn’t try to do too much either, taking 129 of those 133 long-range attempts without a single dribble.

Watanabe was quick in letting it fly as well, with all 133 attempts coming off touches that lasted less than two seconds, per NBA.com. Whether he was spotting up in transition, curling around screens or even leaking out in rare pick-and-pop situations, his footwork was impeccable to get his shot set up. From there, his smooth lefty release took care of the rest:

As a team with three offensive hubs in Booker, KD and Beal, the Suns will love having shooters who can space the floor and knock down open looks. Watanabe was elite in that regard, rarely taking contested looks and shooting blistering percentages on wide-open 3s:

  • Very tight: 0-0 (0%)
  • Tight: 1-7 (14.3%)
  • Open: 15-43 (34.9%)
  • Very open: 43-83 (51.8%)

Considering those wide-open looks made up more than half his 3-point attempts, 51.8 percent is an encouraging figure. According to The BBall Index, Watanabe ranked in the 65th percentile in openness rating and the 80th percentile in 3-point shot quality. Those numbers should improve going from sharing the court with KD and/or Kyrie Irving to sharing it with KD, Booker and/or Beal.

Watanabe also came up big from the corners and in the clutch — two areas where Phoenix needed help against Denver. The Dunker’s Spot Nekias Duncan summed it up best.

“You get Yuta in there, like, I think there’s a level of lineup versatility that they have,” he told PHNX Sports. “They really addressed the corner shooting thing in particular, based on what happened in that Denver series. So I liked a lot of their moves. I think they did a really good job.”

Last season, the 6-foot-8 Watanabe shot 51.4 percent from the corners, which ranked eighth in the league among 183 players who attempted at least 50 corner 3s. That was just ahead of Damion Lee (51 percent) in ninth place. More than half of Watanabe’s 3-point attempts and more than 60 percent of his makes came from the corners, and the Suns will happily reap the benefits of letting their Big 3 find him on the weak side:

Watching these clips, it’s hard to ignore how many of his triples came in the final frame. Watanabe wasn’t a high-usage player or some elite closer, but he did slightly turn things up a notch once the fourth quarter started.

In fact, his 53.5 percent shooting led the league in fourth-quarter 3-point percentage among all players with at least 40 attempts — once again, just ahead of Damion Lee (52.3 percent). It’s how he earned his nickname, “Big Shotanabe” from the Nets broadcast.

By pretty much every measure, Yuta Watanabe bounced back from a down year in 2021-22 and proved himself as an elite shooter. Points per possession on spot-ups? Watanabe ranked in the 96th percentile. Above the break? He knocked down 37.1 percent of those looks. Shooting numbers based on time left on the shot clock? Aside from the “very early” category, he was dependable at any time:

  • Very early (22-18 seconds left): 7-24 (29.2%)
  • Early (18-15 seconds left): 9-21 (42.9%)
  • Average (15-7 seconds left): 28-61 (45.9%)
  • Late (7-4 seconds left): 7-12 (58.3%)
  • Very late (4-0 seconds left): 8-15 (53.3%)

There’s no question the Suns landed an established, career 39 percent 3-point shooter. The bigger question is what else can he do?

Yuta Watanabe makes progress at the rim

The Suns probably won’t need Watanabe for much more than his shooting. After all, more than half his field goal attempts and makes from last season came from beyond the arc. He probably won’t be asked to do much more than spot up and continue knocking down the open looks that stem from the Big 3 passing out of double-teams.

However, Watanabe also learned how to use his 3-point gravity against opponents as the season went on. When defenders overplayed his intended path out to the 3-point line, he and the Nets were good about making them pay with timely backdoor cuts:

The finishes didn’t always inspire a ton of confidence, but this is the type of intelligent off-ball movement the Suns can capitalize on in a pinch, using his 3-point prowess as a decoy. Watanabe only ranked in the 45th percentile in points per possession off cuts and dump-offs, but he’s clearly got the IQ and speed to capitalize when defenders get caught sleeping or overcommit.

Like his off-ball cutting, Watanabe also showed some glimpses of his ball-handling and driving ability. They weren’t regular occurrences by any means, since he ranked in just the 39th percentile in drives per 75 possessions, but Watanabe showed he can attack hasty, lazy closeouts with a few strong dribbles before exploding to the rim.

He’s not an above-the-rim finisher like Metu, Eubanks or Okogie, but he does a nice job of keeping the ball out in front of defenders, using his length and 6-foot-8 frame to finish with the left hand:

His right hand clearly needs more work, both as a ball-handler and finisher, but Watanabe still managed to shoot 49.1 percent overall and 67.7 percent at the rim. The latter ranked in the NBA’s 82nd percentile, and it’s a potentially valuable skill considering how often defenders will be rotating over and trying to run him off the 3-point line.

Still, there’s still room for improvement here. Watanabe only ranked in the 26th percentile in total shots at the rim per 75 possessions, so it’s not like he was getting there often.

He also simply missed some makable shots. Despite posting solid percentages near the basket, any time Watanabe was met with contact, resistance or had to attempt something other than a straightforward layup (like a spin move, hook shot or floater), he didn’t look entirely comfortable:

Watanabe ranked in the 16th percentile in rim shot quality and the 19th percentile in contact finish rate, so it’s honestly surprising he shot as well as he did around the basket. But his self-creation on offense is virtually non-existent aside from those occasionally awkward drives, especially as a pull-up shooter.

According to NBA.com, he shot just 4-for-14 on pull-up 2s and 0-for-4 on pull-up 3s. It’s not a skill he’s comfortable with at this point, and some of these wild, ambitious takes offered plenty of evidence as to why that’s the case:

Where Yuta Watanabe can make his mark

Truthfully, the Suns don’t really need Watanabe to develop some in-between game to bridge his 3-point shooting and efficiency at the rim. As long as he continues to hit open shots, finish layups at a high clip and move the ball, he’ll be a great fit on the offensive end.

Watanabe doesn’t have tunnel vision when he puts the ball on the floor, and these types of dishes bode well for either feeding bigs like Deandre Ayton, Eubanks and Metu when they crash, or locating corner snipers like Booker, Beal, KD, Gordon or Lee:

As a passer, Watanabe didn’t get many chances, ranking in the 28th percentile in assist points and the 24th percentile in passing creation volume. He didn’t show much as a pick-and-roll ball-handler either, but when he got his opportunities to playmake on drives, he performed well enough, ranking in the 90th percentile in passing efficiency and the 77th percentile in passing creation quality.

The big question, however, aside from all the different lineups Frank Vogel can try out, is whether Watanabe will defend at a high enough level to stay on the floor come playoff time. That wasn’t the case in Brooklyn, where he played just 5 minutes in Game 1 of the Nets’ first-round series.

However, low minutes became his reality since the KD trade, which replaced Durant and T.J. Warren with Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith. Watanabe was a victim of a pure numbers crunch, and his playing time was chopped in half from 18.6 minutes per game before the new arrivals to 9.7 minutes per game afterward.

Sporting a 6-foot-10 wingspan and decent athleticism, Watanabe has the physical tools to be passable on the defensive end. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive position versatility, spending most of his time guarding small forwards, power forwards and shooting guards, in that order.

But when teams go matchup-hunting in the playoffs, Watanabe will have to prove his 3-point shooting can counteract the switches he’ll be targeted on. He only ranked in the 50th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, the 56th percentile in off-ball chaser defense and the 32nd percentile in ball-screen navigation. Opponents will test whether he can hold his own in those areas on and off the ball.

However, as a veteran minimum pickup with a second-year player option, Yuta Watanabe shouldn’t be viewed as some fifth starter or playoff hero. He’s an elite spot-up weapon who will fit in extremely well off the bench, and he’ll have a whole season to prove his complementary skills as a corner sniper and occasional driver warrant a place in the playoff rotation.

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