- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Yuta Watanabe, known as “The Chosen One” in his homeland, finished an interview with Japanese media and walked over to sit courtside before practice at George Washington University’s Charles E. Smith Center.

“The Chosen One” is just 13th in the Atlantic 10 Conference in scoring, and he plays for a team without a postseason prayer this year.

Still, the 6-foot-9 Japanese phenom, who made headlines when he came to the United States to play Division I basketball, is as focused as ever on the goal he had five years ago: making it to the NBA.

He’s optimistic, with good reason, about that prospect.

But this week, it’s all about George Washington. Wednesday’s game against Fordham is the Colonials’ Senior Night, and Watanabe’s parents are flying in from Japan to watch their son. After the game, they’ll visit with each other over a late dinner.

“I still can’t believe this. I feel like I was a freshman like yesterday,” Watanabe said. “Time flies. Now I’m a senior about to have a senior night. It’s kind of crazy.”

The Japan Times christened Watanabe “The Chosen One” when he was an 18-year-old standout playing for the Japanese national team. To pursue his NBA dream, he moved to the U.S. and spent one post-grad year at a prep school in Connecticut before the jump to college.

Looking back, he says he doesn’t feel the lofty moniker added pressure.

“I didn’t mind that at all,” Watanabe said. “I actually kind of enjoyed that they called me ‘The Chosen One.’ I think it’s a really cool nickname.”

Watanabe, a 6-foot-9 guard, remains a singular talent. He scored a career-high 29 points earlier this month against LaSalle, and one game later against George Mason, he posted his fifth career double-double (19 points, 12 rebounds). He’s third in the conference in minutes per game (36.8) and blocks per game (1.6), the latter thanks to a combination of height and good timing. He recorded a whopping seven blocks in one game last November.

With his lateral quickness and his height, Watanabe has the ability to defend positions one through four — anywhere from the top of the key to the post, when asked.

Colonials coach Maurice Joseph sees the senior as a “three-and-D” player at the NBA level, pointing to Watanabe’s defensive versatility as his top attribute.

“He can guard both ball-handlers and screeners in ball-screen coverages,” Joseph said. “He can lock and trail and guard guys sprinting off staggers and pindowns and things like that.”

Watanabe and Joseph agree that the senior needs to bulk up his wiry, 205-pound frame for the pros. The guard also wants to shoot more consistently, although that has gotten better lately. He is shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from 3-point range against A-10 opponents this year.

This is the only year he’s led the Colonials in scoring, and his average of 16 points per game doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, but there’s progress. Watanabe told George Washington’s student newspaper that he focused on his mid-range jumper during the offseason; now he says that is his most comfortable shot.

Watanabe plans to keep training after the season and hopes to be invited to some NBA workouts. His training could include a return to the Japanese national team, which has invited him back, but he has not worked out the scheduling behind that yet.

In the meantime, scouts routinely have made their way to Foggy Bottom to watch him play, and Joseph said agents have started to call and ask about him.

Joseph has been around the program long enough to see Watanabe grow. He was the assistant director of basketball operations while the school was recruiting Watanabe, then an assistant coach by the time he was a freshman.

Joseph says Watanabe has been humble from the start, but he’s become more vocal and even a bit of a trash-talker in practice — quite an accomplishment, considering Watanabe spoke almost no English less than four years ago.

“It’s funny to see him transition to where he’s at now, from a kid who wouldn’t say a word an entire practice,” Joseph said. “He’s grown so much as a man, as a student-athlete, as a teammate, as a leader, and he’ll be missed.”

Watanabe is the fourth Japanese-born man ever to play Division I basketball. Last season, according to NCAA demographic statistics, he was one of only 14 players of Asian ethnicity in Division I — a quarter of 1 percent of all players. Watanabe hopes that number ticks up soon.

“I want (Japanese) kids to see me playing NCAA Division I basketball,” he said.

He wants more of them to make it their goal to play at this level, like him, “so I want to be one of the pioneers who can lead Japan and Japanese kids.”

After Fordham, the regular season concludes for the 13-16 Colonials Saturday at Dayton, followed by the conference tournament at Capital One Arena.

That tournament probably won’t be the last basketball fans hear of “The Chosen One.” Still, Watanabe expressed mixed emotions about coming to the end of his career at George Washington.

“I spent many times in this building and I have lots of good memories. Some bad memories as well,” he said. “But everything made me who I am right now.”

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