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Gonzaga’s Anton Watson maintains national title aspirations: ‘I want to see that for my city’

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson saw his averages for scoring (7.3), rebounding (4.7) and steals (1.3) improve during the 2021-22 season.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Over the past few months, Gonzaga fans have experienced both the highs and the lows of off-season roster fluctuation.

Since their season ended in the Sweet 16, the Bulldogs have won and lost important recruiting battles. They’ve hit on key transfers and missed on others. They’ve bid farewell to certain players and waited until the eleventh hour to learn if others would return.

It’s possible nobody was more interested to see how it would all play out than Anton Watson.

Among Gonzaga’s top six in minutes played from last season, the junior forward was the only one who didn’t submit his name for NBA Draft consideration. On April 7, when Drew Timme entered his name into the draft and Chet Holmgren’s departure seemed inevitable, Watson was the only rotational frontcourt player guaranteed to return in 2022-23.

Watson didn’t test the NBA waters or slip into the transfer portal, where the Spokane native would’ve fielded significant high-major interest from programs eager to add a former top-100 recruit with 95 career wins and 1,405 collegiate minutes under his belt.

So, what’s kept Watson rooted to his hometown?

“We’ve got unfinished business,” Watson said. “I think everyone wants to see us win a national championship and I think that’s the biggest goal for me. Especially for me, I want to see that for my city. That’s why I decided to stay. For other dudes, I think they just love to be a part of the GU community and the family, so I think it’s pretty cool.”

Over the past two seasons, the Gonzaga Prep product has endeared himself to Bulldogs fans – and Mark Few’s coaching staff – with a tough, effort-driven playing style that’s constantly kept him on the floor for one of the nation’s top teams.

In 2020-21, he made 17 starts while averaging 18.9 minutes per game, but conceded his starting role midway through the season when the Bulldogs switched to a smaller, guard-oriented lineup. Watson didn’t log a start as a junior but was arguably a greater asset to GU while spelling Timme and Holmgren. His minutes barely dropped (18.9 mpg) and Watson saw his scoring (7.3 ppg), rebounding (4.7 rpg) and steals (1.3 spg) improve from the season prior.

Watson scored just one point but hauled down eight rebounds in Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 loss to Arkansas. He doesn’t believe an early NCAA Tournament exit – by the Zags’ recent standards, at least – should define a season that saw GU spend nine weeks atop the AP poll, win West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles and extend a national-best run of seven-straight Sweet 16 appearances.

“The last game was rough, but we’ve got to acknowledge what we did the whole season and I think it was a good season overall, especially playing against big teams like Duke and UCLA,” Watson said. “It was just a long season and we stood our ground, we stayed No. 1 for a while, but overall I think we just need to be happy with ourselves and we had a good season.

“It doesn’t always turn out the way it’s supposed to be, like the year before when we went to the national championship. It’s hard to get there, I don’t think people realize it.”

Watson’s spent the early stages of his off-season in Spokane, regularly dropping in to John Stockton’s Warehouse facility, where waves of current and former Zags usually assemble through the summer for competitive “runs.” He’s entertained the idea of hopping over to Seattle to train with Nolan Hickman or traveling to Los Angeles to work out with Dominick Harris.

Not unlike the last two, Watson will enter the upcoming season uncertain of what his role may look like. Starter or sixth man? Power forward or small-ball center? Low-post scorer who pressures on the rim or refined perimeter shooter who spreads the floor in a greater capacity?

If the next season looks anything like the past two, Watson may be asked to do all of the above. For now, he’s focused on ensuring he brings something valuable to the Zags on a nightly basis, regardless of the role.

“I think for me, just staying consistent throughout the season,” Watson said. “I had some times where I’d play really good, then some times I wouldn’t play as well. So I think just focusing on being consistent and getting in the gym every day. Getting shots up, I think, is the biggest thing for me and getting my confidence up. I think those are the biggest keys.”

Watson’s 3-point shooting has been a work in progress since he arrived at Gonzaga. He made 11% of his 3s as a freshman – on just nine attempts – before making 15% as a sophomore and 22% as a junior. He and Timme have both improved in that regard, working diligently last off-season with Timme’s Dallas-based trainer, Tyler Relph.

“I’m definitely more confident in my 3-point shooting. I just need to let it go, let it fly when I play,” Watson said. “So I’ve been working on it the past three years now. My teammates have got faith in me, my coaches do. So at this point, it’s just on me having confidence in the game.”

Recent developments in Gonzaga’s frontcourt, such as Timme’s decision to return and Efton Reid’s transfer from LSU, give the group a chance to be formidable again. Someone who’s spent three years sparring with the likes of Timme, Holmgren, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev and Oumar Ballo, Watson anticipates competitive practice sessions with the 6-foot-11, 238-pound Reid.

“It’s going to be fun, for sure. He’s a bruiser down there,” Watson said. “Especially in practice, it’s going to be fun going against him and playing with him.

“It’ll definitely be different. I’ve been playing with Drew so long, I’m kind of used to it, but we’ll see how (Reid) plays. I haven’t seen him too much. I just saw a couple games, but that’s exciting.”

Watson’s aggressive playing style contrasts a soft-spoken personality away the court. That said, Gonzaga fans may hear his voice more next season. The Bulldogs’ roster won’t be young in terms of sheer college basketball experience, but next to Timme, Watson has the most minutes in a Gonzaga uniform.

“I think I’ve got to step in that role,” he said. “For me, I think it’s a big opportunity to be a leader, so I’m excited for it.”