The Knicks have consistently been linked to stars like Zach LaVine, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard, and Karl-Anthony Towns. And while acquiring players of their caliber could be what the Knicks need to get them over the hump, they still need to sure up their bench and address their weaknesses regardless of who they get or don’t get. Teams like the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat recently proved that while you need stars to win, it’s often the role players and the supporting cast that make the difference. And in Yuta Watanabe, the Knicks could find a cheap but solid option to both address their need for three-point shooting and the vacancy that a potential Obi Toppin trade would leave.
Watanabe, who plays with the kind of motor and effort that Thibodeau is sure to appreciate, is a versatile defender, who (much like Torrey Craig, who we covered on Monday) could give the Knicks more options and length/size defensively. And over his five-season career, he has shown the willingness to put his body on the line and be a disruptor defensively. Watanabe, who is 6’9”, would slide in as a backup to Julius Randle, and would also give Thibodeau the intriguing (albeit unlikely) option of going small with Randle at center. And while defense has been and likely will continue to be Watanabe’s calling card, it’s his improved shooting that has helped him go from a fringe NBA player to a helpful rotational piece.
The Japanese forward, who Fred Katz of The Athletic named as a potential target for the Knicks, is coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 44.4% from three, and a very accurate 51.4% from the corner on 1.3 attempts per game. And had he played in just one more game to qualify, he would have ranked top five in the league in three-point percentage. Much of that can be accredited to his retooled form. Prior to last season, Watanabe (as seen below) would hop as he caught the ball and dropped the ball down to his waist before he shot it. Last season, Watanabe changed some things up and got rid of the hop and kept the ball high, which led to a much quicker and smoother release.
Now, the shooting does come with a bit of a caveat. While Watanabe showed great improvement as a shooter, there may still be some doubt around the league if what he did last season is sustainable. Watanabe shot just 35% from three before last season, and at just 2.3 attempts per game, his lack of volume makes it hard to call him a true three-point specialist. The 28-year-old forward also struggled to create his own shot as all 60 of his three-pointer makes last season were assisted and the four threes he took off the dribble all missed its mark.
That being said, with Jalen Brunson and the aforementioned Randle on the team, he shouldn’t be asked to put the ball on the floor too much. If Watanabe can be a knockdown three-point threat from the corner, run hard in transition, and play hard on defense, he could be a great option for a Knicks team that needs front court shooting and bigger defenders in the worst way possible.