Living in Spokane and working in local sports media, I have been able to watch Anton Watson in person numerous times over the last three years. As a sophomore at Gonzaga Prep, Watson was obviously a super athlete and had oozing potential, but wasn’t quite consistent yet. By his junior year, he was becoming a star. And in his final year of high school, he was a stone cold assassin on the court.
"He can not guard me"— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) December 5, 2018
Anton Watson (@twonster4080) puts up 36 on 17-21 shooting in his season debut last night.
Quick edit: @SKarrG0 pic.twitter.com/svYUOsUye4
The list of accolades Watson racked up the last couple of years are astounding: two 4A state titles with a 51-2 record, two state tournament MVP awards, two-time Associated Press and Seattle Times Player of the Year, and a McDonald’s All-American nominee. He is ranked 41st by 24/7 Sports individual rankings, which is the highest of the six Gonzaga freshmen. He outplayed Jaden McDaniels in the state tournament and scored 33 points in the title game this past season. (The crossover drive at 0:45 in this video is filthy as heck)
All of that is nice to see on paper, but what exactly makes Watson so good? I think everything can be put into the word “versatility.” At 6’8”, 220 pounds, Watson is the prototypical next-level wing with the ability to be a stretch 4. He will probably play both at Gonzaga.
He’s explosive in transition, gifted in the post, adept in pick-and-roll, and excels at mid-range jumpers. He’s not exactly Rui Hachimura’s “one-dribble free throw jumper” automatic, but instead, he’s extremely good at turning and facing from 14 feet and nailing a shot in a defender’s face. He also has the ability to step out and nail three-pointers. Granted, that was at the high school line and the college line has been pushed back, so we’ll see how that develops, but his shooting form makes you think he should be just fine.
Probably the most underrated part of his game is his ability to see the floor. His passing prowess and unselfishness always stood out to me when watching him the last couple of years. I once watched a game where Watson scored or assisted on 18 straight points in the first quarter, and he did it in every way possible. He scored in the post, he hit a mid-range jumper, nailed a three, banged down a thunderous dunk in transition, and found open teammates, both in the half court and on the break. The game seems to slow down for him and he makes a lot of stuff look effortless.
Gonzaga commit Anton Watson is a forward with VISION @twonster4080 @g_prep #UnitedWeZag pic.twitter.com/XNpNzYQhLk— Who's Next (@WhosNextHS) December 7, 2018
Watson made the final 18 of the FIBA World Cup roster for the United States the last two summers, but was one of the final kids cut each time. I believe it’s because he plays extraordinarily well in a team setting, but those skills don’t come across well enough in a mini-camp. There’s no doubt he’s as talented as many of the players on the U19 World Cup team that won a gold medal this summer.
The good news is that Gonzaga is all about team basketball. He has all the tools offensively to become an impact player from day one. The question would be: can he defend consistently at the Division 1 level? This is not a player-specific question, but rather a question for virtually every single freshman that plays college ball. The difference between 15 minutes a game and 25 minutes a game often comes down to the defensive end of the court.
I expect Mark Few to use Watson at the 3 and find him some post isolations like they did in 2017-18 when they used a Hachimura/Tillie/Williams line-up. Depending on how ready Pavel Zakharov and Oumar Ballo are, that could be Watson’s main position. But realistically, Watson will see a ton of time at the 4 as well and be involved in the typical ball screens, duck-ins, and high-low actions that the Zags excel at.
In an ideal world, Watson will be a main contributor off the bench this season and then become a star next year before bolting to the NBA. He has all the tools to make this a reality.