When Peyton Watson, the No. 1 ranked high school recruit in California, committed to UCLA during the summer of 2020, a former Bruin took notice.
Russell Westbrook had tracked Watson for years. Watson and Westbrook are both Southern California natives. The high schools they attended sit just 20 minutes away from one another. Watson starred at Long Beach Poly, which is sponsored by Jordan Brand, the same company that Westbrook reps (Watson signed his own deal with Jordan Brand last month.) As Watson rose up the recruiting rankings and committed to UCLA, Westbrook took the youngster under his wing. Today, Watson considers Westbrook one of his most trusted mentors.
The two text frequently. They talk about the latest Jordan Brand shoe drops. They discuss life. They converse about what it takes to succeed in the NBA. It’s advice that Watson is using to navigate his rookie season.
“He’s just told me to not worry about what anybody on the outside says,” Watson told DNVR. “He’s one of the more scrutinized players in today’s game. But he tries to go out there with a smile on his face, has the same exact motor, and gives 110% every play. So if he can do that, why can’t I?
Watson has brought that approach to the G League where the 20-year-old has spent the first part of the Nuggets’ regular season. Denver drafted Watson as a longer-term project. The 6-foot-8 forward only averaged 12.7 minutes per game during his freshman year at UCLA, but Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth looked past his season averages. Booth was in attendance for Watson’s best game of the season, a 19-point effort against Bellarmine in an early-season tournament, and throughout the rest of the year, Booth saw flashes of the player Watson could develop into. It was enough to select him 30th overall.
Through four G League games with the Grand Rapids Gold, Watson is putting up numbers. He’s averaging 27 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 3 steals and 2.3 blocks in 37.5 minutes per game. Watson has flashed the defensive tools that Booth envisions can one day propel him to an All-NBA level defender on the wing and more offensive upside than he was able to showcase in college. While he’s shooting just 30% from 3-point range, the Nuggets like how his jump shot has improved since arriving in Denver. After one season at UCLA spent playing spot minutes, Watson is embracing the opportunity to put his entire skill-set on display.
“I’ve always been a well-rounded player, someone who can contribute in a multitude of ways,” said Watson. At the forefront is my defense, obviously, until I continue to develop my offensive game. But I’m not raw offensively either. I can get some things done on the offensive end. I can score with great ease, especially just with the NBA spacing. And my length, my activity, and just being able to do multiple things, dribble and shoot. I just want to show people that I’m a well-rounded player.”
In Grand Rapids, Watson says he’s focusing on what the Nuggets need him to do in order to win games at the NBA level and how he can add to Denver’s current roster. Specifically, he’s honing in on his defensive fundamentals, positioning, and rotations as a help-side defender. The Nuggets and Gold run the same system and use the same terminology on both offense and defense. So if Watson needs to give the Nuggets minutes this season, he won’t be going in blind. With multiple players in and out of COVID protocols this week, Watson was called up to the Nuggets on Wednesday.
“He’s long, athletic, and wants to do the right thing,” Jamal Murray said. “He’s good in rotations. He wants to block shots and meet you at the rim.”
Another mentor guiding Watson along his NBA journey is his G League coach, Andre Miller. A 17-year NBA veteran and former Nugget, Miller is in his first year as the Gold’s head coach. But Watson and Miller’s relationship goes back years. Both are also from Southern California. Miller used to drop into Watson’s high school games and the two would run into each other on the Southern California basketball circuit.
“He’s taken me under his wing and has taught me a lot of things that he knows about the game. Things off the court as well,” Watson said. “He’s been a great leader and he’s given me a lot of guidance. It’s a full circle moment to be coached by him now.”
“He was a point guard and one of the higher IQ guys you’ll ever see. His advice to me was just to slow down and let the game come to me. He knows how talented I am and how naturally the game comes to me. So he’s like, ‘Don’t press. Don’t force it. Just let it come to you.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
It’s easy to project how Watson’s game could develop and the impact he might eventually make in Denver. At 6-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Watson has tantalizing measurables. He has ideal size for an NBA small forward. On paper, he’s the exact type of defensive-first lockdown wing that every team covets. He generates tons of deflections. He has a natural nose for the ball. He’s switchable, long, and athletic.
Those players are also difficult to acquire, especially for a team like the Nuggets who are going to be drafting towards the end of the first round for however long Nikola Jokic decides to play basketball. It’s a key reason why Booth wanted to take a chance on Watson now. Develop Watson in the G League, get his confidence up, and let him feel what it’s like to play major minutes again. Then hopefully he can be a rotation player in a season or two. Based on conversations with people around the Nuggets, Watson’s progressing quicker than Denver initially thought he would.
One high-ranking NBA scout told DNVR that if Watson went back to college after last season, he thinks he’d be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft based on what he’s shown in the G League.
Watson’s time will come, and he knew it would be a process to make it to an NBA rotation after playing sparingly in college. But he’s staying patient. He’s leaning on his mentors. He’s soaking up all the knowledge that he can. Most of all, he’s eager for the opportunity to remind the world who Peyton Watson is.
“I just want to go out there and produce,” Watson told DNVR. “I want to show everyone the player that I’ve always been.”