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Yuta Watanabe nearing return from injury after unexpected Nets impact

The Nets have missed Yuta Watanabe — a fact not even he envisioned would be true.

“No one expected it, right?” Watanabe said Tuesday at the team’s training facility. “Even myself. In training camp, my goal was just to make the team.”

The Nets forward made the team, then made an impact during his terrific first 14 games of the season. Watanabe was the top 3-point shooter in the NBA (57.1 percent) and carved out a role off the Nets bench before he strained his hamstring on Nov. 20, saying he felt the injury while lifting weights after a win over the Grizzlies.

As Watanabe approaches his return — he will miss a ninth straight game Wednesday against the Hornets but thinks he can play either Friday against the Hawks or Saturday in Indiana — the Nets will welcome back a surprisingly significant piece.

The 28-year-old showed he could drain 3s that were open because opposing defenses would cling to Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. Agile and 6-foot-9, Watanabe can grab rebounds and play defense, important components for a small team.

Yuta Watanabe
NBAE via Getty Images

In his fifth NBA season, he found his first true niche.

“I thought I was playing really well. I was finally getting some playing time. I was really enjoying the moment,” said Watanabe, who was an offseason flier who is paying off. “It’s definitely frustrating, the injury taking me out.”

Watanabe played some two-on-two and three-on-three during an optional practice Tuesday and said he felt well. Head coach Jacque Vaughn said “hopefully” Watanabe would play in one end of this weekend’s back-to-back.

When he does take the court again, Watanabe will be rejoining a team with whom he says he has been the happiest during his NBA career.

“I’m always a happy guy no matter what,” said Watanabe, who also has played for Memphis and Toronto. “But definitely — playing some minutes, playing with some greats. [This is] definitely, I would say, the happiest moment now.”

Guard Edmond Sumner (right glute contusion) is questionable for Wednesday. Sumner, who missed Sunday’s loss to the Celtics, did some shooting work Tuesday.

“He definitely felt better than the other day,” Vaughn said.

Forward T.J. Warren, who has played in two games since returning from left foot surgery, will not play in both ends of the back-to-back Friday and Saturday.

The “goal is to be playing for us at the end of the year in the playoffs,” Vaughn said. “So we’ll probably … [be] more conservative this weekend with him.”

Kessler Edwards, Day’Ron Sharpe, David Duke Jr. and Alondes Williams are out Wednesday on G-League assignments.

The banged-up Hornets will continue to be without LaMelo Ball (ankle), Gordon Hayward (shoulder), Dennis Smith Jr. (ankle) and Cody Martin (knee), all of whom were ruled out for the Nets game.