When I reviewed a post-game box score last season, I was usually surprised by Anton Watson’s stats. Either by how well he played or how he seemingly disappeared.
As a freshman, Watson started his first four games at Gonzaga. Killian Tillie was injured, and Mark Few gave Anton the nod over some Texas kid named Timme. Watson was quick to impress; in his first three college games, he scored a combined 32 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, dished 8 assists with 5 steals and 3 blocks. Out of the gate, Anton demonstrated the ability to just fill the stat sheet. Shortly thereafter, he suffered the shoulder injury he was unable to play through and spent the final two-thirds of the season on the bench.
Next season, he again started but didn’t seem to be the same player we saw at the beginning of the previous season. There were glimpses of brilliance; 23 points against Portland, 10 rebounds against Pepperdine and 17 points against Norfolk St. in the NCAA Tournament opener, but there was also a lot on inconsistency. For example, in the season’s first contest against St. Mary’s; 0 points and 0 rebounds in 22 minutes played. I’m not positive if he was still being bothered by his shoulder, but he often seemed tentative.
This past season, a seemingly fully healthy Watson looked to have added five pounds of muscle to his already substantial frame. He’d be the third big behind Timme and Holmgren and was usually the first player off the bench. He stated the season slowly, averaging only 3.7 points over the first eight games including five points combined against UCLA, Duke and Tarleton State. Then, like the Summer of George on Seinfeld, it became the Winter of Watson.
Over the next 15 games his scoring average increased to 11 points per contest. He had double/doubles against North Alabama and Santa Clara, dropped 19 on Pepperdine and had 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals against Merrimack.
Here’s what Drew Timme had to say about Watson after the Merrimack game: ”I’ve seen someone who got their confidence and swagger back and at an all-time high. He’s had to battle some injuries and that’s not easy, and he’s done a great job of putting the work in and coming to practice every day ready. We have to have him score, and we have to have him play hard and do what he does because he’s such an X-factor for us.”
This mid-season eruption demonstrated what makes Anton Watson so special. He’s possibly the best defender on the team with great instincts and very quick hands. He can interdict the passing lanes or tap the ball away from a dribbler with equal skill. On more than one occasion, I was exceedingly impressed by his post defense and how he didn’t give an inch when the bigger player tried to back him down. He’s got a great head for the game and is an intuitive passer, especially adept at the pick and roll.
He was also hunting his shot. He attempted only three shots per game in those first eight contests. In the Winter of Watson, that number more than doubled to 6.3 and he was shooting 61% from the field. Anton was finally playing to his full potential and Gonzaga often played their best when he was in the game. There was even talk about his future in the NBA draft. Then sadly, inconsistency again reared its ugly head in the final eight games of the season.
In the last three games of the WCC regular season against Santa Clara, USF and St. Mary’s, Watson had a combined three points. He missed all seven of his shot attempts in those three games, making only three free throws against Santa Clara. He had a solid WCC Tournament, played well against Georgia State but wasn’t a factor against Memphis and Arkansas. He scored a single point on three shots in both games combined.
Time and time again Anton’s proven he has the skills to be a game changer. Most likely, he’ll return to the starting lineup next season and his frontcourt mate will be a transfer. His leadership and consistency will be imperative for the team’s success.
There’s a couple of items I’d love to see him improve upon this off season. The first is his three-point shooting. He’s shot a horrific 17.6% for his career but did raise that number by five percentage points this past season. I’m not sure where I read it, but I saw that Anton was the best three-point shooter in practice and it’s part of his game he’s constantly working on.
The second is to not only continue hunting his shot but attacking the rim in the post. He sometimes goes straight up with his right hand and gets easily blocked. The few times he attempted the hammer dunk this past season have been spectacular, more please
This is how to attack the rim.
Finally, the confidence and assertiveness to match his skillset. Anton is the rare player blessed with a great head for the game combined with the body and athleticism to do great things. If any player seemed primed to make the jump to greatness in his final season, it’s him.