Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images. Design by Dash VisualsWelcome to our new off-season mini-series: Minimum Monsters. In a game where cap space is limited, the best teams are the ones who can stretch a dollar the furthest. Generally speaking, players on minimum deals don’t move the needle too much. But every year, there are always a few cases where a team hits a salary cap home run – landing a real contributor on a cheap deal. In this series, we will highlight a few players who signed minimum contracts this offseason that could end up vastly outperforming their expected value.
The Phoenix Suns had as busy of an offseason as anyone, adding Bradley Beal and Jusuf Nurkic (among others) and parting ways with their former first-overall pick, Deandre Ayton.
This series of moves has left them with their very own Big Three (Beal, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant). However, Big Threes ain’t cheap, and this one is going to cost them roughly 130.3 million dollars in 2023-24. That means that those three alone take up 95.8% of the team’s salary cap. And while you can go over the cap by paying a tax (a penalty Phoenix’s ownership is gladly willing to eat), you are still limited in the ways you can build out the rest of your team when you have three players commanding so much of your resources.
To flank their star-crossed trio, the Suns spent free agency enlisting a cavalcade of minimum players. And the one who could arguably be the most important to the team’s success is sixth-year forward Yuta Watanabe. He doesn’t have the pedigree of Eric Gordon or the upside Bol Bol. But Watanabe’s theoretical skillset does complement the Big Three and Nurkic better than anyone else on this team.
For starters, on offense, Durant, Booker, and Beal are all space creators. They all are prolific enough offensive players to draw multiple defenders and produce space for their teammates to take open shots. Being that Nurkic isn’t a great outside shooter (although he did show improvement last year) or lob finisher, he can’t really capitalize on the opportunities the trio creates. So, ideally, Phoenix will want their fifth guy on the court to be someone who does.
Enter, Watanabe. Last season for the Brooklyn Nets, Watanabe converted 44.4% of the 2.3 threes he attempted per game. Larger sample sizes paint the same picture of his outside shooting prowess. According to the Thinking Basketball database, Watanabe has shot 41% on catch-and-shoot threes (the kind of threes the Suns’ stars would be gifting him with) over the last three seasons (84th percentile).
Now, Gordon (career 37.1% three-point shooter), Grayson Allen (39.5%), and Damion Lee (37.9%) can all shred some nylon when given the opportunity. But none of those gentlemen can match Watanabe’s defensive potential.
In the space ball era, length rules the day. And Watanabe gives the Suns a major boost in this area – measuring in at 6’9 with a 6’10 wingspan. As a general rule, touting great length gives you more margin for error on defense, as it allows you to cover more ground in a shorter period of time. That means you can be a little bit slower on rotations or a little stiffer when closing out on the perimeter because you have the tools to recover from your mistakes quicker than most people on the floor.
His length also makes him an above-average defensive playmaker for his position. Last year, he was in the 64th percentile in steal rate and 58th percentile in block rate for his position (per Cleaning the Glass).
(Sidebar: Watanabe and Durant’s secondary shot-blocking will be especially important when they play alongside the ground-bound Nurkic.)
Watanabe can also be a part of switch-everything lineups with Durant at center. Brooklyn did a ton of one-through-five switching last year, and Watanabe had no real issues fitting into that scheme. According to BBall Index’s database, Watanabe was in the 98th percentile in their Defensive Positional Versatility metric.
On paper, Watanabe is one of the few (he may be the only) non-Big Three members of the Suns who can hold his own on both ends of the floor in the playoffs. On offense, he can operate as a spot-up shooter who can burn defenses that try to help off him. And on defense, he can use his length to create turnovers and guard multiple positions.
His detractors will cite the fact that he didn’t see the floor much during the playoffs last year (logging five total minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers) as evidence that he isn’t worth more than the dollar amount on his current deal. But that Brooklyn team had an abundance of two-way off-ball wings/forwards and a dearth of on-ball creation. So, Watanabe fell through the cracks of the rotation as the team prioritized fielding more on-ball-centric players.
In Phoenix, they have a bounty of the latter and a famine of the former. That means someone like Watanabe will be immensely valuable to them in the postseason. Maybe even valuable enough to massively outperform the minimum contract he signed this offseason.