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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s Anton Watson has healthy outlook after January shoulder surgery

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson, coming back from a January shoulder surgery, took a big step forward last week when he was medically cleared to return.

Watson, who has been through months of physical therapy, has been lifting weights to restore strength in his left shoulder. He’s participating in some light contact drills.

“I have loose shoulders in general, that’s what they told me,” Watson said. “I just built up the strength the past couple months. It feels stronger than before, actually. I just have to keep building that strength and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

Watson leaving several games holding his left arm after a shoulder subluxation became an all-too-familiar sight last season. The talented, 6-foot-8 rising sophomore gamely played through the injury for nearly two months before undergoing a season-ending operation Jan. 20.

Watson was back with teammates and the coaching staff Monday, the first day the NCAA permitted coaches to join players for on-court sessions. He said he expects be at full strength for the season.

“I started lifting before I started playing, actually,” Watson said Thursday in a Northwest Passages virtual forum. “I started slow, just basically working on my form and the motion of the arm. That’s definitely been a big part of my recovery.”

Prior to the injury, Watson showed off his all-around ability in the first month of the season while Killian Tillie was mending from knee surgery. Watson had 12 points, eight rebounds and three steals versus Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He had 15 points, eight boards, two blocks and two assists in the ensuing game against North Dakota.

He’s been able to work on his shooting throughout because the injury was to his left (nonshooting) arm. The Gonzaga Prep product made nearly 63% of his attempts inside the arc, but was just 1 of 9 behind the 3-point line last season.

“I’ve worked on my shot basically since I got injured, and it’s definitely helped a lot and progressed,” Watson said. “Something else is just staying in shape, being in the best shape possible and strong as possible, so when the season comes around I’m ready.”

Gonzaga’s frontcourt will be without Filip Petrusev, who has opted to play professionally in his native Serbia. Petrusev was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year and was recognized on numerous All-America teams.

Petrusev’s exit and Tillie’s graduation are blows to the frontcourt, but the Zags have capable replacements, with Drew Timme likely stepping in at center and Watson taking over at power forward

“We went through (Filip) a lot. In practice, he was unstoppable down in the post. He’s definitely a big piece that we’re going to miss,” Watson said. “But for all of us that were freshmen last year, all the big guys, this is our turn to step up and show it’s our turn.

“We have to prove a lot. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I think we’ll be good.”

Oumar Ballo, coming off an NCAA-mandated academic redshirt year, could assume a key role in the frontcourt.

“This man is a beast,” Watson said. “He’s one of the biggest dudes I’ve seen. When he’s in the post, he’s unstoppable, too.”

The Zags remain a national championship contender, according to most analysts, particularly if Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi decide to pull their names from the NBA draft.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered numerous college football teams’ schedules, and there’s concern it could cause disruptions for basketball. The coronavirus is a frequent topic among GU players, but Watson said the team is “preparing like we’re going to have a season. We’re excited to play and we want to play.”

For good reason.

“The potential is through the roof,” he said. “I think we’re going to bring back the first championship to Spokane.”