Gold: Former Bruin Peyton Watson relishing NBA Finals run even if minutes are scarce
LOS ANGELES — It was enough to send chills up this reporter’s spine, so I can’t imagine how it felt to be Peyton Watson a few Saturdays ago, as DeAndre Jordan delivered a quick lesson to the Denver Nuggets rookie.
Not an hour before Denver was set to take on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in a game the Nuggets would eventually win, 119-108, I caught up with the former UCLA Bruin guard in the visitor’s locker room of Crypto.com Arena to talk about his first year in the league.
Just as Watson starts answering a question about his approach to this rookie season, one that has been short on playing time and long on lessons learned for the 30th pick in last year’s draft, Jordan — one of the Nuggets’ elder statesman and a leader on the team despite a short tenure — walks by and gives the rook a little shoulder and leans toward the phone microphone.
Watson starts to say, “My approach to this year has just been doing whatever I can …” when Jordan interjects, “Like getting ready for the (bleeping) game that’s going to start in 50 minutes.”
In that moment, Watson could’ve done one of two things: Wilted and postponed the interview until after a game in which he would not play. Or laugh it off and take the L, finish out the brief conversation and vow to table future playoff pregames until postgame, no matter if he expects to play.
So that’s what he did. We chatted about his role — both on the floor and on Denver’s totem pole — and about the realities of being a late-1st-round NBA rookie, landing on a team with championship aspirations.
“I’m just doing anything I can to make myself better and put myself in a better position to play, whether that’s pushing guys in practice all year, playing my hardest when I play, getting in extra shots after practice — anything I can to get better and show I’m committed,” he said, completing his thought. “Even if I can’t help us win on the court, I think my leadership as a young guy, being present in the moment, is big for my teammates. I know I’m one of those guys who lights up a gym when I’m in.”
Watson has played in just 27 games as a rookie, including 4 playoff games. He has yet to appear in the NBA Finals, and might watch again in Game 3 on Wednesday night. It’s a familiar beginning after finding scarce minutes for UCLA as a freshman on a loaded squad in 2021-22.
He arrived in Westwood as a much-ballyhooed freshman 5-star recruit, one who made it clear he only expected to play 1 year in college. But he also arrived in poor shape and got lost behind a Bruins starting unit with championship expectations.
He played just 12.7 minutes per game, averaging just 3.3 points. In a season-ending Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina, he played 3 minutes.
But despite a subpar start and opting out of the live-action portion of the NBA Combine, the Nuggets took a flyer on him, acquiring Watson in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And though it took awhile, Watson proved his staying power, averaging 22 minutes per game in the last 6 regular-season games and earning high praise from his coach, Michael Malone.
“If I have to use Peyton Watson in a playoff series, I will, if the situation calls upon it,” Malone told the Denver Post’s Mike Singer back in April. “He’s shown me he can go out there against some really good players and teams and impact the game in a positive light.”
His old coach, meanwhile, knew he’d ended up in a good spot from Day 1.
“Our program is thrilled for Peyton Watson to be selected in the NBA Draft’s first round, landing with such a strong organization in the Denver Nuggets,” Mick Cronin said on draft day. “Peyton has a high ceiling and Denver is getting a young player with a ton of potential. We can’t wait to watch him thrive in the Mile High City, and we wish him all the best as he gets his NBA career underway.”
Watson knew from the very beginning that he had plenty to prove, and he took that attitude into the start of his professional career. But he could not have possibly braced himself for what was to come.
“My welcome to the NBA moment is every day,” he said. “This is a job. You don’t understand until you get through a full season that it is literally every day. No days off. You see why guys progress at such a rapid rate, and that’s because it’s no joke. We’re really in here working every single day. That professional aspect of it, showing up every day with my hard hat on, that was my welcome to the NBA moment.”
Now as he concludes his second straight lightly used freshman season, he knows what he plans to work on during the offseason.
While some of his young counterparts might be looking to get a mile deep on one or two skills, Watson is hoping to go a foot deep across the board.
“I have a versatile skill set, being able to play both sides of the ball, so for me it’s about sharpening every tool, every day,” he said. “Getting better on the defensive side of the ball comes with getting stronger. I’m only 20, so I’m filling out my frame. There are guys like LeBron who are almost 20 years older than me and have played thousands of more games than me. At this point, what separates me is my energy and willingness to do anything I need to do.”
Still, he knows there is plenty left for him to learn, especially from guys like Jordan, who has been in the league for 15 years.
“A guy like LeBron, he’s gone through different eras of playing basketball,” Watson said. “There was a more physical era in the early-2000s, so going through that and now having to adjust their games, I feel like there are a lot of little tricks I’ve yet to learn. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can from our vets like Jeff (Green) and DeAndre, Aaron Gordon.
“Being a sponge will be good for me in the long run.”