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Yuta Watanabe declines player option with Grizzlies. What does it mean for Memphis?

One of the Memphis Grizzlies’ first major decisions of the offseason has been made.

Forward Yuta Watanabe, who joined the team in February in a trade from the Phoenix Suns, will decline his $2.7 million player option for the 2024-25 season and opt to play in his native Japan, he announced Friday. Watanabe said he now just wants to enjoy basketball after he reaches his 20s.

“My goal until I was 20 was to continue working in America, no matter the situation,” Watanabe said in an Instagram Live video. “Never give up, no matter what. It was fun at times, but also hard work.”

Watanabe, 29, played five games with the Grizzlies in what was his second stint with the team. He last played on March 1 before missing the rest of the season due to injuries and personal reasons.

Watanabe’s decision allows him to return home while giving the Grizzlies more flexibility and direction in their offseason approach.

What Yuta Watanabe’s decision means

Memphis finished the season with only one player on the 15-man roster scheduled to hit free agency (Lamar Stevens). Watanabe had a player option, and Luke Kennard’s team option was the only remaining piece to determine how much Memphis can do without impacting other assets.

Watanabe played the majority of his minutes at small forward, which is by far the deepest position on the Grizzlies roster. Ziaire Williams, John Konchar, Jake LaRavia, Vince Williams Jr. and GG Jackson all spent significant minutes playing small forward this past season. Watanabe’s shooting ability was enticing, but the Grizzlies had to part ways with at least one player from this stacked group.

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How Grizzlies can benefit

Memphis now has two open rosters, which is a big difference from one. The Grizzlies have a top-10 lottery selection for the 2024 NBA Draft. If Memphis retains the pick, that player will automatically receive a guaranteed contract. Had Watanabe decided to pick up his option, the first-round pick would have occupied the Grizzlies’ last open spot before trades or potential cuts.

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Now the Grizzlies have at least a little breathing room to add two impact players. It’s clear the Grizzlies will be adding a big man. Targeting a veteran center and taking the best player available in the first round feels like the best option, whether that’s another big man or one of the talented guards at the top of the mock drafts.

Ultimately, how the draft board shapes up will shape the Grizzlies’ plans, but Watanabe’s decision provides more clarity.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Yuta Watanabe declines player option with Memphis Grizzlies