How Raptors' Watson Jr. forged path to NBA with help from Mahlalela

Toronto Raptors Shooting Guard Paul Watson Jr. discusses what transitioning from the Raptors 905 to the Toronto Raptors is like and how prepared he feels going into the NBA in a press conference.

TORONTO — Late Sunday morning, the Toronto Raptors sent out a small-looking announcement that brought big smiles to quite a few people.

Former two-way player, Paul Watson Jr. officially got his contract converted to a full, standard NBA deal and his former coach with Raptors 905, Jama Mahlalela, couldn’t be more proud.

“I mean, it's really nice to see a journey like his,” Mahlalela, who’s once again an assistant with the Raptors, said Sunday after Toronto practised in preparation for the 2020-21 NBA season. “I think a player like him who played in the G League for two season without really much fanfare or much recognition, and then his career shifted that little bit. All the credit goes to him.”

He later added: “He did the work. For me as a coach, it's great. It's sort of a reward, in general, as a coach, to see someone succeed. That's why I'm a coach in many ways, to allow people to be successful and to help them in their careers and their lives. And Paul's just this wonderful example of that, for me personally.”

For Watson, his path to earning a full-time NBA gig is tied closely to the relationship he forged with Mahlalela in the G League.

A former four-year standout at Fresno State, Watson went undrafted in 2017 and, instead began his professional career playing for BG Göttingen in the Basketball Bundesliga in Germany. That didn’t last very long, however, as he only suited up for one game for them before he was released by the club.

This then began a long stint in the G League for Watson that started when he was selected fifth overall in the 2017 G League Draft by the Westchester Knicks, whom he played for until 2019.

In September 2019, Watson was named to the G League Elite team, a squad that would be taking part of the NBA G League International Challenge where this team comprised solely of G League talent would participate in a six-team tournament against clubs from around the world, including Germany’s Bayern Munich and Brazil’s Flamengo.

Taking place in Uruguay, it was during this tournament that Watson first got to work closely with Mahlalela, who coached that G League Elite team, and, more importantly, when Mahlalela first got a chance to work with Watson.

So impressed Mahlalela, who was the current head coach of Raptors 905 at the time, was of Watson that he called up 905 general manager Chad Sanders and convinced him to make a move to bring Watson to Mississauga.

Ahead of the 2019-20 season, the 905 made a move to acquire Watson’s returning rights from Westchester and the marriage between him and Mahlalela proved the be the spark Watson always needed.

In 30 games with the 905 last season, Watson averaged 19 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 42.3 per cent from three-point range. More importantly than the numbers he put up in the G League, however, the strong play he showed in the minor league finally bore fruit for him in the major league.

After a close call in 2018 when he was signed by the New York Knicks and then waived, on Jan. 6, 2020, the Atlanta Hawks announced they’d signed Watson to a 10-day contract, giving him his first taste of NBA action.

Ultimately, Watson’s stint with Atlanta didn’t last all that long as he was released by the Hawks on Jan. 15, but on that same day, the Raptors swooped in and announced that they had signed him to a two-way deal, obviously having liked what they saw from him on the farm team.

And from then on, it was nothing but an upward trajectory for Watson’s career, as, with the opportunity given to him, he flourished with the Raptors, particularly in the bubble where, in Toronto’s final game before the playoffs last season, Watson exploded for 22 points and six rebounds, going 8-for-13 from the floor and 4-for-6 from deep in a solid 27 minutes of action.

With the Raptors, Watson found a means to success and ran with it, even working out with Pascal Siakam in the off-season.

Reflecting on this long and winding road he took earning this full-on NBA contract with the Toronto, Watsons said he never wavered, trusting the effort he was putting in would eventually be rewarded.

“For me, it was always staying dedicated to the grind and trusting that my work and my faith in God and that everything would fall into place,” he said Sunday. “All I had to do was continue to do the work and trust myself and trust that it would pay off, and it did.”

Added Mahlalela in regards to Watson’s journey: “I think it shows that it's possible. I think the NBA's such an incredible league that you need those stories where people say it is possible to do it if you weren't touted from the age when you were 12 years old, or something like that.”

Self-belief is a powerful thing, but for as much as Watson managed to open this door for himself, his story probably wouldn’t be possible had the opportunity with 905 and being rolled into Toronto’s well-respected player-development program came about.

“Just being with the 905 they do a great job of preparing not only myself but for guys down there with the opportunity to be up here and it prepared us very well,” said Watson. “We ran everything that we run here to a tee down there so there’s not really any surprises when we get up here -- maybe a few wrinkles here and there -- but outside of that you pretty much understand the system once you get up here and it’s just on you whether or not you follow through on the gameplan and things like that.”

With the 905, the Raptors have a major asset on their hands and use it much the way NHL teams make use of their AHL affiliates in that it’s been used primarily as a developmental tool where the same concepts that are being taught with the big club will be passed on at the minor-league level as well.

“I would say it was great communication between coaches and organizations,” said Watson. “And Jama, he did a great job of relaying that message to us. Whatever they were doing up here he managed to make sure that we got it done down there.”

Said Mahlalela: “I think a good example is, in the bubble, and Paul was in the bubble with the team, and he's getting a lot of coaching, and a lot of play in those seeding games. The early games he got some good minutes in some of them. And talking to them after, he said to me, I fit in coach. And that's important. He knows he's an NBA player. He knows he fits in on this level. Now the challenge is to do it more and work his way through it. But building his time with the 905, and the same terminology, and the same system, has helped him get to where he is now.”

The success Watson has found is an excellent example of just why Toronto’s player development is as highly-touted as it is. The Raptors, as an organization from top-to-bottom, have appeared to make this part of their team’s identity as much as anything else.

“I would say it’s just our culture,” Watson said when asked what makes Toronto’s player development so successful. “It’s a very culture-oriented group, and the first thing is guys will come in and we have a great coaching staff that’s gonna get you ready for whatever and it’s a great group of guys and it helps when they come in and they buy into what coaches are trying to say and get done and being able to buy into willing to get better and learn the game and learn the system.”

The word “culture” is tossed around a lot in sports, but in the case of the Raptors, it truly does sound like a real, tangible thing guys who come into the organization can point to.

“However long I’ve been here, I would say very passionate,” said Raptors newcomer DeAndre’ Bembry of how he defines Raptors culture. “Every individual is very passionate. I mean, you can tell these guys want to get back to where they’ve been. I mean, you can tell these guys are used to winning and they’re hard on each other. I mean, coaches are hard on the coaches, players are hard on the players, players are hard on the coaches, coaches are hard on the players, it’s just a combination of everyone being competitive and trying to figure out ways to win.”

“Hard work, honestly. Everyone’s here to do one thing and that’s win,” added Watson. “And you can’t do that unless you’re going hard and everybody in here, I feel, from top to bottom is a tough guy, a tough player and I feel that’s one thing that wins us a lot of games, is our toughness. Just being able to play harder than any other team, wanting it more than any other team and just being able to leave it out there all on the floor, and I feel like that’s the biggest thing for us and what separates us, is guys being able to be tough and play the game the right way.”

Regardless of whatever the culture of the Raptors may be, Watson is clearly a player who managed to fit right in with it all, and both he and Toronto look to be better because of it.

An even-keel guy, Watson found out the news shortly after Toronto’s pre-season finale Friday and the first thing he did was call his family and told them the good news. There was no lavish party or anything of that matter, however.

After all, getting to this point was merely the prologue. The first chapter of his tale truly begins now.

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