The Memphis Grizzlies are really testing out just what the best use of the two-way contract is in this new NBA.
Most recently last season Memphis went with youth on the perimeter in guard Kobi Simmons and rewarding solid G-League play in Myke Henry as their logical uses of the contracts that allow for the Grizzlies and other NBA teams to lengthen their bench while strengthening the G-League squad they are connected to. In the process of this offseason, however, Memphis decided to move on from those two players and focus on two new Grizzlies to “develop” through this relatively new tool for front offices to utilize while building rosters.
Yuta Watanabe and D.J. Stephens took very different paths to get here. What can be expected of them now that they are both in the Memphis system?
2017-2018 Season in Review
From the Grizzlies press releases regarding the signings-
(D.J.) Stephens (6-5, 188) played professionally last season in France, where he competed in 46 games (nine starts) and averaged 9.2 points and 3.7 rebounds in 21.3 minutes to help guide Le Mans Sarthe Basket to the French LNB Pro A championship and earn the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Most recently, he appeared in seven games for the Grizzlies during MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2018 in Las Vegas, his second summer league stint with the Grizzlies.
(Yuta) Watanabe was named the 2017-18 Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior after starting all 33 games and averaging 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.64 blocks in 36.6 minutes...Watanabe (6-9, 205) joined the Brooklyn Nets’ summer league team after going unselected in the 2018 NBA Draft and averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.60 blocks in 24.0 minutes in five games (two starts) during the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2018 in Las Vegas.
Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario for these two wing-type players with a dash of big potential depending on match-ups is to play up with the Grizzlies as much as possible. While both Watanabe and Stephens will spend a vast majority of their time with the Memphis Hustle down in Southaven, they can be with the big league club for up to 45 days. The more they are in Memphis, the more they get paid, which is of interest to both men of course, but especially Stephens who said for a long time that he would not come back to America to play in the G-League exclusively.
Chances are that both players get those 45 days in, and may even get signed to a deal to remain up with the Grizzlies, depending on the health of the roster. Of course that’d be worst case for Memphis...but this is about Yuta and D.J.
Worst Case Scenario
Neither of them make the 45-day mark due to injury. It’d be bad for multiple reasons - in the case of both men, not getting that additional cash that is part of what makes the two-way contract unique would be unfortunate. This is a business, after all. With regard to Yuta in particular, though, those games and days/practices with the Grizzlies will be vital in determining whether or not the young Japanese national can hang in the NBA and be a part of the long-term plans of the Grizzlies. At 23 years old, Watanabe has shown the versatility and raw tools that the modern NBA craves.
Can he do it against the best in the world? There is only one way to find out, and if you’re not available due to injury, you’re not able to show your ability.
What can you realistically expect from the 16th and 17th guys on your roster? They won’t be with Memphis much this year, barring some terrible injury or a trade or waiving that isn’t expected at this time, so when it comes to what they should be able to do in their limited Grizzlies reps it must come down to depth. Stephens is only 6’5” but because of his elite athleticism and leaping ability he plays bigger than that height. Any front court position - even center, depending on the match-up - is now deeper because of D.J...and it doesn’t hurt that he is a Memphis Tigers legend. It will be interesting to see if ticket sales are up for the Hustle in year two of the franchise, and how much Stephens has to do with that.
While Watanabe could potentially be seen as a Stephens-esque signing in terms of media attention (Yuta has a large contingent of Japanese media following his NBA run) it would appear that he is indeed viewed as a possible future piece for the Grizzlies. Stephens is essentially a finished product at the age of 27, so while his NBA level of play is debatable just how much more he can get out of his game certainly is. Watanabe, on the other hand, has youth and size on his side. He clearly fits the defensive model J.B. Bickerstaff and his staff are pursuing, and with lots of reps and attention from coaches he could be molded in to an NBA rotation player through niche scoring ability and sound defensive understanding of angles and rotations.
These two are in the same boat after traveling around the world to get this opportunity in Memphis. How they make the most of it will be fun to watch, both for the Hustle and the Grizzlies, this coming season.