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Japanese forward Yuta Watanabe was brimming with pride after signing his first NBA contract with the Toronto Raptors.
Watanabe joined the Raptors on a training camp deal, and secured a two-way contract to begin the season. But after several standout performances over the past month, Watanabe was awarded a full NBA contract on Monday for the remainder of this season and next year.
"I was super happy. I'm really excited. This is what I've been working for. I'm motivated more than ever and I'm ready to work," Watanabe told reporters about his new deal.
Watanabe scored a career-high 21 points in a win over the Orlando Magic on April 16, which was the final hurdle for him to cross. Watanabe had been an energetic player, a diligent defender, and an unselfish contributor on offense, but Nick Nurse's challenge for him all season was to be more aggressive. Watanabe finally took that to heart recently, scoring in double digits in four of his last six games, and that clinched the contract he was working for.
"I actually have been trying not to think about it. I didn't want to get caught up by it. My mentality going into the game is always play defense, run hard, play hard, just like what I have always been doing. Everything takes care of itself," Watanabe said about his recent breakout showings.
Nurse had been a fan of Watanabe dating back to preseason, when he was one of several players in contention for the last roster spot out of training camp. Nurse sees Watanabe's progression from being a G-League standout, to now securing a spot in his rotation and a contract with the team, as the latest example of what the Raptors are all about as an organization.
"That's what we're about. Developing players, giving them an opportunity, and when they make the most of it, we try to keep rolling with them and keep teaching them how to become even better players, and even better teammates for the Raptors," Nurse said.
For Watanabe, the news of his signing created major headlines in his native of Japan. Watanabe is just the third NBA player from Japan, along with Rui Hachimura and Yuta Tabuse, and Watanabe fielded questions from Japanese reporters for almost half an hour. But the biggest celebration of all was with Watanabe and his family, which includes two parents and a sister who all played basketball at the national or professional level.
"My mom was almost crying, and I told my mom this is just the beginning. We were really happy and they say they are really proud of me," Watanabe said.
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