The Nuggets made two first-round picks in last year’s draft. Both selections told you everything you need to know about how Calvin Booth wanted to build out this Nuggets’ roster.

Christian Braun was the ready-made product. A two-year starter and three-year player from one of college basketball’s most respected programs who has consistently won at every level that he’s played. Braun showed that he was an NBA-caliber rotation player as soon as he slipped on a Nuggets jersey for the first time. With the postseason approaching, he’s a lock for the playoff minutes.

Peyton Watson was the project. He only averaged 12.7 minutes per game as a freshman on a stacked UCLA team. On some nights, Watson wasn’t even in the rotation. But he had believers inside the Nuggets’ front office. Booth was in attendance to watch what was arguably Watson’s best game of the season at UCLA — a November matchup against Bellarmine in Las Vegas where Watson tallied 19 points on 9-12 shooting and flashed the game-changing defensive tools that we’ve seen on display for the Nuggets over Denver’s last two games.

Braun and Watson both have special defensive upside. They have great size for their positions. They’re high-level athletes. They’re workers. They have the skill sets that perfectly complement Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and the Nuggets’ core.

They both represent Booth’s vision — the right vision — for this team.

While Braun has had his moments throughout the season, Watson has been the top story from the Nuggets’ last two games. He played 27 minutes against the Suns and Kevin Durant, someone who Watson considers an idol of his, and was on the floor and contributed to a spirited near fourth-quarter comeback. Sunday against the Warriors, Watson again was in the spotlight. He logged 20 minutes in the Nuggets’ 112-110 win and finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Watson has five blocks across his last two games — the only two games he’s been in the Nuggets’ rotation for. He’s quickly emerged as a game-changing defender after spending most of the season in the G League with the Nuggets’ affiliate, the Grand Rapids Gold.

Booth took a risk on Watson in the draft partly because he looked at it as one of the few chances the Nuggets had to grab a high-upside defensive player like him — a 6-foot-8 wing with over a 7-foot wingspan who one day can be the type of defender that you just need if you want to be a high-level defense in this era of the NBA. Denver isn’t going to have the first-round picks available going forward, the trade assets or cap room to go out into the marketplace and acquire an elite defensive wing. Everyone is trying to get those players, but the Nuggets could get in on the ground floor with Watson, and let him develop while contending for a championship. Maybe in a couple of seasons, he can be their version of Jaden McDaniels or OG Anunoby.

That’s the hope. Many within the Nuggets believe he has All-Defensive potential.

These two games are important data points for Watson. Now, the Nuggets have a better idea of what they’re working with heading into next season. It’s not unrealistic to think Watson can win a rotation spot off the bench next year, and Denver should get even more of a look at him over the Nuggets’ final four regular-season games with the No. 1 seed in the West virtually locked up. The Nuggets’ magic number for the 1-seed is only 1, meaning one Denver win or one Memphis loss seals the top spot in the conference.

Remember when another 6-foot-8, defensive-first rookie earned a spot in the Nuggets’ rotation in 2017? His name was Torrey Craig. He played that season because Denver had no one like him on its roster. Craig filled a void, similar to the one Watson fills on this version of the Nuggets. No one on the Nuggets quite does what Watson does.

Who knows for sure what happens next? I’m not expecting Watson to crack the playoff rotation. It’s way too soon for that. Watson made a lot of mistakes against Golden State, some of which would be fatal in the postseason. But he can play. There’s definitely something there. Maybe he’s someone Michael Malone looks to if the Nuggets are in a bind, need a jolt of energy, and want to shift the momentum of a game. Watson has proven that he can do that.

It’s time to get excited about the future with Watson and maybe the present too.


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind