The Memphis Grizzlies are getting some bad news as they prepare for next season. Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe is leaving the team and heading to play in Japan, per Bleacher Report. Watanabe had played six seasons in the NBA.

The forward is from Japan, and had become the first NCAA Division 1 player to earn a scholarship ever from that country. He played his college basketball at George Washington, and was named the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018.

“I just want to play basketball. I want to step into the game and do what I do in practice,” Watanabe said, per Kyodo News. “I grinded through my 20s but now I hope to play basketball the way I like.”

Yuta's peformance

Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe (18) watches as his team plays the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first quarter at Target Center.
© Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Watanabe leaves the NBA after spending this past season with the Grizzlies. He appeared in only five games, and has stated that his mental health was affected this season, impacting his game.

“I was finding things tough,” Watanabe added. The forward averaged 2.6 points per game this past season, while shooting only about 32 percent from the field.

The Japanese forward's career in the NBA was almost exclusively as a role player. He never averaged more than 16 minutes a game in his six seasons. He had his best statistical season in 2022-23 with the Brooklyn Nets. He averaged nearly 6 points a game that year, playing in 58 contests. Watanabe played for the Grizzlies, Nets, Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns.

“My goal through my 20s was to keep working in America, regardless of the situation. Never give up, no matter what,” Watanabe added. “It was fun at times but also a lot of hard work.”

Watanabe was undrafted when he entered the NBA in 2018. His hard work definitely paid off, as he was able to last in the league for six years and possibly longer if he wanted to keep going. Watanabe says he is excited about going back to Japan to play.

“The level in Japan is getting higher,” he added. “I want to play in some high-intensity games.” Watanabe also played for the Japanese national team in his professional basketball career.

The Grizzlies finished the season with a 27-55 record, one of the worst in the Western Conference. The team is expected to use the NBA Draft and free agency to try and re-work the roster into one of championship caliber. Only the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs had worse records in the West this season than Memphis.

Watanabe's legacy as a breaker of barriers in college basketball and the NBA will always be remembered. His play has inspired many other Asian-American basketball players to give their NBA dreams a chance. Grizzlies fans are surely sad to see him go, but understand why he's leaving.