Raptors rookie Paul Watson harnessing lessons from unorthodox NBA path

Michael Grange and Eric Smith look at the Raptors' 15th straight win, this time coming against the Timberwolves, and discuss the depth and new ways the team is finding to win.

TORONTO — Minutes before the Toronto Raptors plowed through the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night for a 15th-consecutive victory, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Nick Nurse were all summoned to centre court at Scotiabank Arena. The trio was being recognized for their invitations to participate in this weekend’s NBA All-Star game in Chicago — Siakam as a starter, Lowry as a reserve, Nurse and his Raptors staff as the coaches of Team Giannis. From Toronto’s bench not far away, Paul Watson Jr. stood and applauded.

Watson’s own acknowledgment was earlier. It happened at his locker in the corner of the Raptors dressing room, where Watson — who on Monday was named to the mid-season All-NBA G-League team — had just finished a light pre-game meal from a plate balanced on his knees. Stanley Johnson, the good-humoured Raptors forward, returned to his locker next to Watson’s, found his rookie teammate sitting by himself, and commenced the ceremony.

“Hey, this man’s first-team, all-G-League mid-season! You know what I’m saying?” Johnson announced to no one in particular. “Yes sir! Yes sir! Get him on the f—ing court!”

Watson laughed and shook his head. His last several weeks have featured a few affirming moments in his basketball life not unlike this one: His first NBA contract, a 10-day deal with the Atlanta Hawks. His first NBA game, playing alongside Vince Carter, whom he grew up watching. His second NBA contract, a two-way deal with the Raptors. His first NBA point, which his teammates with Raptors 905 paused a practice to watch live as a group huddled around a cell phone.

Watson has that seat next to Johnson in Toronto’s locker room now because he’s been a revelation for Raptors 905 all season, averaging 17.9 points, 1.8 assists, and 7.2 rebounds over 22 games. It earned him that 10-day with Atlanta. And once the Hawks deal expired, the Raptors waived rarely used guard Shamorie Ponds to open a two-way roster spot in order to prevent another team from scooping Watson up.

“It’s a pretty big honour. It just goes to show that all the work I put in is paying off,” the 25-year-old Watson says. “This is all still so surreal to me. But I wouldn’t want to be in any other position. I’m grateful to be where I am. I’m learning a lot. It’s pretty humbling, going through all this.”

It’s not hard to see what the Raptors like in the six-foot-seven swingman. The organization has a type — long, athletic wings that play energetically, guard a variety of positions, and shoot from distance. Watson satisfies all of the above, adding a work ethic and quiet professionalism the franchise values in young, developmental projects. And his G-League play this season has been off the charts.

So now he’s splitting time between the G League and the NBA, where he’s always wanted to be, waiting at the end of the Raptors bench for an opportunity that’s merely an injury or a lopsided score away. Watson always thought he’d get here. His journey just wasn’t quite what he envisioned when he was a high-school standout winning an Arizona state championship and choosing from six NCAA Div. 1 offers.

“Being a top-ranked player and stuff like that in high school, every guy’s dream is to come out and go one-and-done. Hear your name called. Things like that,” Watson says. “But you learn that everybody’s path is different.”

Watson’s took him through four full years at Fresno State, where he was named his conference’s freshman of the year, led his school to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years, and participated in the College Slam Dunk Contest at the 2017 Final Four. Then, it took him to Europe.

Unselected in the 2017 draft, and left jobless after a summer-league stint with the Raptors, Watson accepted an offer to play for BG Gottingen in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga. It would be a cool experience, if nothing else.

Basketball is one of the biggest draws in Gottingen, a picturesque university town filled with Medieval and Renaissance architecture that survived the Second World War. A significant portion of the population is young, drawn to the 286-year-old university the town’s built around. And it feels like every single one of them turns up at Sparkassen Arena where BG Gottingen plays.

“They pack the gym. That city is all about basketball,” Watson says. “It was definitely a collegiate atmosphere. Whether you’re up, you’re down, things are going bad, good — the energy stays the same throughout the entire game. It was pretty cool how they embrace you.”

Cool while it lasted. Watson figures he played in something like 20 pre-season games, but after Gottingen’s regular-season opener he was caught up in a roster crunch — German clubs can only carry so many foreign-born players — and let go.

Plus, he had an opportunity in the US to be selected in the NBA G League draft, playing a step closer to the league he really wanted to be in. Four days after he left Germany, Watson was drafted by Westchester, the New York Knicks affiliate.

“I went out [to Germany] with the mindset that I was going to get things done. But things just didn’t work out that way. So, I found a better situation and moved on from there,” he says. “It was a learning experience. I learned what to do, what not to do. Learned a new culture.

“At the end of the day, I always knew what my end goal was. And that was to make an NBA roster. Regardless of where I was, I knew I had to get there. I knew what I wanted. And I knew I was going to work to do whatever it took to get there.”

But two seasons with Westchester didn’t get him much closer. Watson played in 95 G-League games, never earning anything more than an Exhibit 10 deal entering the 2018 season. This October, Raptors 905 acquired his rights in a trade and gave him another chance for a fresh start.

“I definitely enjoyed my time in Westchester. And I appreciate them giving me the opportunity to go out there and play. But I just felt like the Raptors were probably a better fit for me,” Watson says. “Especially for my game. Ever since I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve definitely been able to showcase that I can do a lot of different things than I was before.”

Over his two seasons with Westchester, Watson built a reputation as a determined, energetic defender who merely spaced the floor at the offensive end. But when he joined the 905, the Raptors challenged him to assume more of a primary scorer’s role, one he hadn’t filled since high school. During his college career, Watson never averaged more than 9.6 attempts per game. Westchester ran even less offence through him. But the Raptors thought there was untapped potential in there.

And Watson knew there was. With his reins removed, Watson was suddenly scoring off end-to-end sprints in transition, muscling his way to the rim through traffic, and shooting seven three’s a night. He essentially doubled his per game stats across the board this season from last despite playing only a few more minutes per night. Not much changed with regards to his ability. Only his opportunity.

“It’s not something I showcased earlier in my professional career. It wasn’t necessarily my role with Westchester. But it was something that was always there and I was capable of doing. Now, it’s just me being in the situation to show it,” he says. “It’s nice to be more involved offensively — being able to go out there and show that my game’s not one-dimensional.”

It certainly wouldn’t be unusual for the Raptors to have identified and acquired an overlooked, underutilized talent, giving him the runway and tools needed to develop into something closer to his full potential. Toronto’s second two-way player, undrafted rookie Oshae Brissett, has stepped into rotation minutes at times this year while playing regularly for Raptors 905. He’s often running alongside Chris Boucher, a two-way player last season who was named the G-League’s MVP and is now on a full NBA contract.

Or Watson can aim even higher. When Siakam starts in the All-Star Game, he’ll be the first G-Leauger to do so. Three seasons ago, he was a G League Finals MVP; last summer he signed a max extension. Fred VanVleet played on that G League championship team with Siakam as an undrafted rookie. This summer he’ll be in a position to ink a contract worth nearly $100 million.

Hey, good things happen to determined people. Not everyone’s road to the NBA is easy. Or linear. Watson knows that. He played with both Siakam and VanVleet during his summer league run with the Raptors back in 2017. That was before Siakam and VanVleet were what they are today. Before Germany. Before 95 G-League games. Before the unexpected success Watson’s had this season. He’s seen both ends of unorthodox NBA paths. And he knows what he has to do to forge his own.

“Fred, Pascal — those guys are great role models. Neither one of them quit. Neither one of them lost faith,” Watson says. “I’m just trying to follow them and do the same things. Because if you continue to work and stick to it, you’ll get to where you want to get to.”

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