Anton Watson has been a productive starter, valuable backup, versatile defender, capable rebounder and adept passer in his three seasons at Gonzaga.
Scan the stats and many of Watson’s attributes are evident. Despite being seventh in minutes played (17.8), the 6-foot-8 junior is second on the team in assists (28) and steals (14), third in offensive rebounds (16) and fourth in total rebounds (42).
Watson’s numbers are in the same neighborhood as his first two seasons, but the player seems different.
“I think I made a big leap,” Watson said. “Just more mature in how I’m playing, my IQ, just seeing things way faster. I think some of the young guys, I was that young guy one time when it’s always going fast, the offense going fast, the defense going fast, but you kind of need that dude (to) kind of settle everything down and just relax.
“I just got more mature with my game.”
Watson had 10 rebounds, nine points, five assists and three steals vs. Merrimack last Thursday on the heels of a 10-point, four-rebound, two-assist performance against Alabama.
Watson had 10 points and five boards against then-No. 5 Texas a month ago for his only other double-digit scoring game of the season. That included a dunk attempt in the closing minutes that would have brought the house down – and maybe the rim – but it was derailed when he was fouled by Marcus Carr. Watson made both free throws.
“You love it,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said of Watson’s dunk attempt after the Zags’ 86-74 win. “That’s the interesting thing about Anton. It’s in there, you don’t always know when you’re going to see it. That one, and the (soaring dunk last season) at Pepperdine obviously took everyone by surprise.
“The thing he really provides is versatility defensively. He can truly guard 1 through 5. We had him on everybody from (point guard) Carr to (post Tre) Mitchell, and it helps with our rotations. He’s just super unselfish and he’s always been a really good ball-mover. We just need him to look for his shot a little more and he can drive, too. He’s a perfect complement to Chet (Holmgren) and Drew (Timme).”
One good compliment deserves another. Timme and Watson were at the interview table following the Merrimack game when Timme suggested a new line of questioning after fielding the first four inquiries.
“Can we talk about this guy being one point away from a double-double, though?” Timme said. “C’mon, that gets me hyped.”
A short time later Timme was quizzed about Watson’s development.
“I’ve just seen someone who got their confidence and swagger back,” Timme said. “He’s had to battle some injuries and that’s not easy. He’s done a great job of just putting the work in and coming to practice every day ready. We have to have to him score and we have to have him play hard and do what he does because he’s such an X-factor for us.
“The game has slowed down for him. He’s way more confident, he’s looking to score now, he’s not deferring as much. We couldn’t be more happy with that because we have to have that.”
Watson, who led Gonzaga Prep to a pair of 4A state championships, acknowledges he’s made an effort to be more aggressive offensively. He continues to have a widespread impact at the defensive end.
“It’s important (to score), but I think it’s more important just to get the win and be a leader,” he said. “You don’t always have to score to be a leader. It’s definitely part of my game I want to improve and keep getting better at.”
Watson has made strides with conditioning after missing the second half of his freshman season following shoulder surgery. He started the first four games of his career – averaging 10.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals – while Killian Tillie was on the injury list.
Watson started 17 of the first 18 games last season before the Zags went to a small-ball starting five. He became the first big off the bench and contributed 6.9 points and 3.3 boards.
“I think part of it is physical and he’s in better shape,” Michaelson said. “And part of it mentally is he knows those guys are gone, and last year he knew he could take a back seat because you had Jalen (Suggs), Drew, Corey (Kispert), Andrew (Nembhard), Joel (Ayayi).
“This year he knows he’s our second most experienced Gonzaga player and fourth most experienced player overall. He knows he needs to step up and deliver. He’s such a good kid and he wants to help this team so much. We knew he’d be ready for it.”
I think I made a big leap. … I just got more mature with my game.” Anton Watson Gonzaga forward
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