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Did Knicks Get Steal of Draft in Cleanthony Early?

Did the New York Knicks get the steal of the 2014 NBA Draft? Landing Cleanthony Early at No. 34 certainly looks like it.

Alex Kennedy

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Cleanthony Early was getting impatient. The first round of the 2014 NBA Draft had just concluded, and his name wasn’t one of the first 30 called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Early had been projected as a late-first round talent, but with his name still on the board, he could only sit and wait.

Early had a very productive senior season at Wichita State, averaging 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds to make the Wooden All-American Team and help the Shockers pull off a perfect 34-0 regular season record. He played even better during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 27 points and seven rebounds while shooting 65.6 percent from the field. His 31-point outing against the Kentucky Wildcats turned heads around the league, even if it wasn’t enough to keep Wichita State’s season alive.

At the NBA Draft Combine, Early measured well at 6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan and he tested out as one of the most athletic players in the class. His 40-inch max vertical and 3.18 three-quarter sprint were impressive, and DraftExpress’ athletic testing composite score ranked him the third-best athlete in the class.

Yet, here was Early, still on the board as second-round picks started to come in. Damien Inglis to the Milwaukee Bucks with the 31st overall pick. K.J. McDaniels to the Philadelphia 76ers with the 32nd overall pick. Joe Harris to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick.

Despite his success, it seemed that Early’s age had scared some teams. At 23 years old, he’s one of the oldest players in the class. In the draft, teams often choose young, high-upside players over older, experienced players, opting for phenoms with potential over veterans with successful resumes. This is how a player like Early, who seemed to fit the mold of a first-rounder, ends up slipping on draft night.

With each pick, Early’s frustration grew, but fortunately his long wait came to an end early in the second round.

“With the 34th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks select Cleanthony Early from Wichita State University,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced to the cheers of Knicks fans.

Early, who was born and raised in the Bronx, was thrilled. As upsetting as it was for him to fall out of the first round, he feels like it all happened for a reason because it allowed him to return home to New York.

“I was excited, I was happy, especially for the fact that I get to stay home next to my mom and be a part of the Knicks organization all at once,” Early told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a dream come true, just be in this position. Getting to come back home is just everything. I couldn’t ask for more. It feels very surreal.”

Early at No. 34 is incredible value, and he may end up being the steal of this draft. After receiving little attention out of high school, playing two years in junior college and going overlooked at Wichita State, he already had an enormous chip on his shoulder. Now, after being passed over by every team, he’s definitely using it as motivation.

“At the end of the day, they made their decision, they made their choices, and they’re going to have to live with that, they’re going to have to stick with that,” Early said. “I’m going to have to live with that, I’m going to have to stick with that. But the only difference is, the way my heart is set up and the way I am, I’m going to use it as motivation. It fires me up. If I ever feel like I am being overlooked or I feel like I got something to prove, I’m willing to accept that challenge. The only thing I have to do is get in the gym and continue doing what I’ve been doing, honestly. I’m not going to get caught up in making crazy comments about the situation. It is what it is, it happened, get over it.

“It’s time to eat. I’m ready. I can’t wait to play any one of those guys [who went before me] and play any of those teams that passed on me when it would’ve been a good fit. It’s just going to be a little extra motivation, you know what I mean?”

Early had an interview with the Knicks at the NBA Draft Combine, and felt really good about it. Even though the team didn’t have a draft pick at the time, he started to sense that New York was somewhere he may land.

“I just had a gut feeling that I would end up in New York, and I just kept believing,” Early said. “When I had an interview with them, I thought I could end up there. How? I don’t know. I felt like there was a possibility, even though they didn’t have a pick. It wasn’t like, ‘Why am I having an interview if there’s no chance of me coming here?’ But the interview went really, really well. Going through the process, you think you might end up somewhere, but you never really know. I was just going to be happy with wherever I went. Then, once they acquired a pick, I was just like, ‘Alright man, this could be real.’”

While Early’s age is what caused him to be passed over on draft night, he feels it will actually help him on the Knicks since he’s NBA-ready and prepared to make an impact immediately.

“I definitely think I can contribute right away,” Early said. “I guess it’s like that Drake line, ‘I’m the rookie and the vet.’ I just got to take it for what it is and use it to my advantage. There’s younger guys, and they have a lot to learn and more years to learn, but when we’re talking about right here and right now, I’m going to be ready to play and make the most of my opportunity.”

Early grew up supporting the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers – idolizing Phil Jackson – so he can’t believe that he ended up being the Zen Master’s first draft pick.

“It means everything,” Early said. “It’s very humbling, but at the same time it’s very inspiring – that’s exactly what it’s doing for me. It’s keeping me humble and it’s keeping me inspired because he had players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Now, with him drafting me first, you have an expectation to live up to. And it’s not just what anyone else sets for you, it’s what you set for yourself and where you see yourself. If you have high goals, you’re going to work hard and Phil Jackson is the perfect teacher. People call him the Zen Master and a genius, and you get labels like those from having a great resume and being a great person and I think I could do great with those type of people because I’m willing to learn from as many people as possible. When you have a great teacher and someone who’s willing to listen and is as open to learning as I am, only positive can come out from this.

“I’m going to keep working on everything – ball-handling, reading screens, ball-screens, defending, communicating, bringing my energy, it’s pretty much everything. I’m always trying to work on everything. I’m getting up shots off the dribble, spot up shots and shots coming off screens, I’m not going to limit myself to what I’m trying to improve on. I get to learn from Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher and all those guys who know so many different ways to put the ball in the basket and how to share the basketball and how to free another guy open and how to get yourself free by just setting screens, moving, cutting to the basket. I want to learn as much as possible and I can’t wait to start.”

Early has already gotten to meet some of his teammates and he believes he’ll fit right in to the Knicks’ culture.

“I got to meet some of them and they seem like cool guys, good guys like [Iman] Shumpert, Tim Hardaway, J.R. [Smith] – those guys all seem pretty chill,” Early said. “As far as the offense, they’re new to it, just like I’m going to be new to it. They have stuff to learn, just like I got stuff to learn, but they’ve been playing together for a while. My thing, just with my energy and my openness, is to continue to learn and listen and communicate with everyone properly. I’ll do whatever I can to learn and contribute.

“We haven’t spoken specifically about my role on the team. I know that they see me as a high-character guy and a guy who’s talented and has the ability to play basketball. But I’ve got to learn a new offense, and that goes for everyone. As far as my role, I’ll be someone that’s going to come in and make an impact and play defense, defend, rebound, shoot the ball well, get to the basket, create shots for teammates, just pretty much be a basketball player. With the offense that we have now, we just have to learn and find the minutes pretty much.”

Fans in New York are thrilled to welcome Early to the team, because they realize that he can be a rare second-round player who emerges as a difference maker right away. Early appreciates the support he has been getting from Knicks fans.

“It’s been nothing but love, man,” Early said. “I love the Knicks fans. I love New York. I love all of our fans really, whether they’re in New York or not. Anyone who’s down to support me or anything that I’m doing or organization that I’m in, I think that’s great. I give that energy right back and I’ve got nothing but love for those people that believe in me.”

Early can’t wait for the season to start so he can pull on his Knicks jersey for the first time and make his NBA debut. Entering next season, he believes that New York has the pieces to be very competitive in the Eastern Conference.

“I think we can be really, really good,” Early said. “That’s me, I’m very optimistic and I believe everyone here works hard, and they want to win and if you have that then we can be really, really good. Especially with a good coach and good players. We have a great president, a really good coach and good players, so the potential is there. We just got to all buy in and play for each other and do what we need to do, which I believe we’re going to do.It’s real early to tell, but I believe the sky is the limit for us.”

The sky is certainly the limit for Early, and he’s ready to prove it.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role

Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.

Ben Nadeau

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After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.

And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting

Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.

Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.

For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.

De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting

After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.

On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.

Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.

Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three

Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.

While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2017-18: N/A

Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.

For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.

On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.

Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.

Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three

Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.

The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.

Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.

With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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