Memphis Grizzlies rookie shooting guard Yuta Watanabe made history last year, when he became the second Japanese-born player to appear in an NBA game. The 6-foot-9 Kawaga-native signed a two-way contract with the Grizzlies this past summer—allowing him to split time with the team’s G-League Affiliate, the Memphis Hustle.
Watanabe has appeared in 10 games for the Grizzlies and 27 with the Hustle. We caught up with Watanabe to discuss his upbringing, experience moving to the United States and playing in the pros.
The Hub: Your parents and sister were all professional basketball players in your country. Your mother Kumi Kubota played for the Chinese National Team and your sister Yuki played for Aishin AW of the Women’s Japan Basketball league. What was it like having basketball players in your household?
Watanabe: It’s been great. My parents were kind of like my coaches and I started playing basketball because of them. They taught me how to play when (I was 6) and we talked about basketball a lot in my house. So, I was really glad that my parents were players and that they knew a lot about basketball.
The Hub: Who was your favorite player growing up?
Watanabe: I think the first game I watched was a Lakers game. I grew up being a Kobe (Bryant) fan and liked him a lot.
The Hub: What went into your decision to come to America for your last year of high school (at St. Thomas Prep in Connecticut)?
Watanabe: I always wanted to come to the U.S. to play basketball. And I always wanted to play at a high level. So I thought that was a good time for me (to leave Japan). A lot of people were telling me “you should go to the U.S.” so, I just decided (to make the move).
The Hub: Were you at all familiar with Connecticut?
Watanabe: I saw some pictures of the school but I was kind of surprised because it was in the middle of the nowhere (in Connecticut).
The Hub: What were some of the biggest challenges off the court in adjusting to American life when you got to school?
Watanabe: Definitely English. The first time I got here, I couldn’t speak any English. And I still had to go to school, study and communicate with teachers, coaches and teammates and stuff like that. So, English was the hardest part.
The Hub: How did you get over the language barrier? Was there anything in American culture that helped you speed up the process?
Watanabe: Hanging out with my friends and teammates helped me a lot. Even though I couldn’t speak English well, they always tried to communicate with me and I think that helped me a lot.