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Sunday, December 09, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  High school sports

Head of the class: Gonzaga Prep’s Anton Watson remains calm under pressure entering senior season

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 5, 2018, 7:27 p.m.

A league title. A state championship. Tournament most valuable player award. State player of the year. Signed commitment to the beloved perennial top-10 hometown Division I basketball program.

These are just a few of the accomplishments and accolades that Gonzaga Prep’s Anton Watson has achieved in the past calendar year.

How do you follow that up?

“I want to do it again. I want to do all that again,” Watson said on Monday night after practice in G-Prep’s shiny new gymnasium. “That’s my goal this year is to repeat all that and win another state championship.”

In Tuesday’s Greater Spokane League opener, Watson scored 36 points with four thunderous dunks in a 20-point win over a good 3A Mt. Spokane team.

Everyone involved with the Bullpups said there’s no pressure to repeat – at least they don’t feel it from the outside. Watson’s more involved with what they can control themselves.

“I don’t really notice any pressure. I just go out there and play,” he said. “I have confidence in my team. Pressure doesn’t really play a factor in how we play. We just have to play our hardest every game.”

Confidence should be the least of Watson’s problems.

He’s been the best player on the team since his freshman season. He led the Bullpups to two straight third-place finishes at state until last season, his junior year, when he fully blossomed, propelling the Bullpups to an undefeated season.

He dominated the state tournament – hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime against Richland in a 53-50 semifinal win, before scoring 22 points in a 54-52 win over Federal Way in the state title game.

Watson also took home tournament MVP honors and averaged 21.9 points in the Tacoma Dome that weekend.

Watson’s coach, Matty McIntyre, thinks he’s capable of more.

“I think, just physically, he’s still growing into his body,” McIntyre said. “It seems like his shoulders and his physique has gotten bigger, which I think will serve him well in the key and in the paint.

“But I think perhaps the biggest change is that he’s so unselfish, so humble, that I think this year he knows that he’s going to be the focal point every night for every team’s defense. And he’ll still end up being the focal point for us offensively and defensively. So that burden is going to rest on his shoulders. That’s something that he’s going to have to carry with him throughout this season.”

Watson’s up for the challenge. His experience over the summer included training with Team USA’s U18 national team, where he made the first cut before being trimmed from the final roster.

He relished the opportunity to play for Kansas coach Bill Self, the coach of the U18 team, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. He felt like the time he had with the national team was invaluable – and taught him some things about himself.

“Not making the team in the final cut, I took it that I have to be more aggressive and put myself out there more,” Watson said. “I was kind of … I felt like I didn’t really go for it as much as I could have. I should have just went and grabbed it.”

Watson admitted that it took him a while to get acclimated to the unfamiliar situation – being surrounded by so many with so much talent.

“When I first got there, I didn’t know anyone. I was the newcomer. They all knew each other,” he said. “After a while I got comfortable.”

Once he got back, he spend a good part of the summer working on different parts of his game – especially outside shooting and handling the ball, facets that he’ll use at the next level down the street from G-Prep when he suits up for the Zags.

“I’ve been working on my guard skills all summer,” he said. “Next year, I think, it’s probably the position I’ll be playing mostly. I’ve been working on all my outside stuff.”

Watson has been committed to Gonzaga since his sophomore season, but said he’s excited to have finally signed on the dotted line and made the dream a reality.

“I’ve been around the team for a long while now,” he said. “Now I know I’m going to be there next year, I’m even more excited.”

He’s part of a draft class that includes all-state 2B guard Brock Rivet from Kittitas, Texas prep forward Drew Timme, Lithuanian small forward Martynas Arlauskas and 6-foot-10 Russian native Pavel Zakharov.

Gonzaga’s class includes four forwards ranked in the top 50, according to 247sports.com, and is rated the No. 4 recruiting class overall.

Watson said he’s honored to be part of it.

“It’s just a good group of guys,” he said. “I’ve talked to a couple of them. I haven’t talked to the international guys yet, but I’m excited to meet them. I’m excited to create that family with them.”

He said having his commitment signed only adds fuel to his fire this season.

“It’s a little more confidence in my game,” he said. “I’m still going to play my game the same way, but maybe play a little more aggressive, though. I just have a little more confidence.”

He’s most looking forward to hitting the floor at the Kennel in front of Zags nation.

“I’m crazy excited,” he said. “Every time I see them before the games and the fans all getting hype, I get chills. I’m just ready for that.”

Before Watson can think about the West Coast Conference, he and his teammates have another Greater Spokane League slate to navigate – and what may await after that in the postseason.

“We’re going to have a target on our back all year,” he said. “We just have to come out and game and play our hardest.”

McIntyre said it’s a luxury to plan around Watson with the talent he brings to the floor, but also said his quiet superstar is growing into another role.

“I’ve been really proud of him this season on the leadership that he has displayed,” McIntyre said. “He certainly seems to be communicating better. Talking more. Being more assertive. That’s been very noticeable.

“He’s watched for the last three years how seniors act.”

Jacob Parola, the team’s senior point guard, said having Watson as a teammate was “a blessing.”

“He’s an amazing player,” Parola said. “He can play any position. When you have him on the court, you know that if he has the ball he’s going to score, and he’s going make plays for us and help us win.

“I love being his distributor. He makes everything that I give him. It’s a great thing.”

McIntyre said Watson’s fluid style on the floor makes everything look easy, even when it’s not. McIntyre said Watson has the ability to make the game “slow down.”

“Sometime I have to step back and remind myself how great Anton is,” McIntyre said. “But at the same time, he’s still a high school kid. He’s taking classes just like the rest of them.”

McIntyre stopped himself before looking too much into Watson’s future. For now, he’s looking forward to coaching him in his senior season and seeing how this year plays out.

McIntyre said the future will take care of itself.

“At this stage of the game, I don’t project forward on who Anton’s going to be,” he said. “I just try to live in the present with who he is today, and try to serve him and help him in ways on the court, and perhaps ways I can help him grow off the court as well.”


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