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Anton Watson: The X-Factor Gonzaga Needs

A return to form would be an enormous boost

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Gonzaga’s defense struggled for the majority of the season. When Killian Tillie was banged up or off the court, they relied on just two bigs, both of which are natural centers and average at best defensively. Next season, Anton Watson will help cure a lot of those ails.

People may have forgot that 247 Sports had Watson as the highest rated recruit in Gonzaga’s stellar 2019 class, ranking him 41 in the country. With Tillie out to start the season, Watson was hoisted into the starting lineup. In those four starts, he averaged 10.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 68 percent inside the arc. He also put up 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting in Gonzaga’s exhibition game.

Then the first wave of injury struck. Watson separated his shoulder in the first minute of the Battle for Atlantis tournament. He tried to fight his way back against Washington, but the shoulder popped out again. After two weeks of rest, they took the training wheels off and let Watson play 20 minutes against Detroit. His stat line that night: 11 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks. That’s what Watson brings to the table.

Of course, the shoulder popped out shortly after and Gonzaga made the decision to shut him down with season-ending surgery. Assuming he is back to full health to start the 2020-2021 season, he is likely to be the biggest X-Factor on the team. Remember when he was an absolute menace at the top of the press? After he went down, the Zags rarely pressed the rest of the season.

His athleticism, versatility, and feel for the game are not just valuable parts to Gonzaga’s success, but they make him arguably the Bulldogs’ top NBA prospect. With a plethora of bigs in the program, it’s Watson who may lead them all in minutes next season. If he can find confidence in his jumper, that ability to stretch the defense paired with his own defensive prowess will catapult Gonzaga to an elite level. No other big on the roster has anything close to that combination.

It’s hard to remember all the way back to early November to envision how important Watson was to this year’s team. He does so many things, most of them effortlessly. How many times in January and February did you think to yourself, “Man, this team really misses Anton Watson?” For me, it was almost every night. More than the stats and intangibles I’ve already mentioned, he was just a stabilizing and reliable force for Mark Few.

Gonzaga fans can’t wait to see the highly touted 2020 recruiting class of Jalen Suggs, Dominick Harris, Julian Strawther, and the arrival of Oumar Ballo. Adding Anton Watson back to the fold is like bringing in another top 25 recruit to next year’s roster, except one with a year in the program and a future possibly brighter than anyone else.