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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga teammates, coaches make case for Anton Watson – ‘one of the defensive players of the year’ – after Portland win

Jan. 28, 2023 Updated Sat., Jan. 28, 2023 at 8:52 p.m.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Anton Watson reacts after scoring against the Portland Pilots during the second half of a college basketball game Saturday at the Chiles Center in Portland. Gonzaga won the game 82-67.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Anton Watson reacts after scoring against the Portland Pilots during the second half of a college basketball game Saturday at the Chiles Center in Portland. Gonzaga won the game 82-67. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

PORTLAND – Drew Timme’s production and impact through eight WCC games has given the senior forward a solid chance of repeating as conference player of the year.

Bulldog players and coaches seem to be convinced another postseason award could be returning to Spokane this spring.

Gonzaga’s team defense has taken a sizable step back from last season, but it’s highly probable the Bulldogs would be conceding more than 73.4 points per game – and 76.6 in WCC play – if not for the individual defensive play of senior forward Anton Watson.

“He’s terrific, he’s got to be up for one of the defensive players of the year in the nation I think for what we ask him to do, whether it’s guarding ones, or twos coming off screens or fives,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after Saturday’s 82-67 win over Portland at the Chiles Center. “He’s having a heckuva year defensively.”

Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren was the runaway candidate for WCC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021-22, matching the school’s single-season blocks record (117) .

Watson, at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, is unable to give Gonzaga the same rim-protecting presence as Holmgren, but the veteran forward has still been a key defensive stopper for a Bulldogs team that’s looking to round the corner on that end of the floor.

The Zags took a positive step on Saturday in Portland, exactly seven days after allowing 90 points in a road victory against Pacific. The Pilots’ 67 points were the fewest Gonzaga’s conceded in a conference game and marked just the second time the Bulldogs held a WCC opponent under 70.

“That’s been our focus for the past week is just defense,” Watson said. “We’ve kind of been getting torched on defense the past couple games, so I think we did a good job today of limiting their 3’s and making sure they don’t go on big runs. Yeah, I think we did a good job today.”

Portland’s shooting percentages on Saturday – 47% from the field and 41% from the 3-point line – were comparable to the ones Pacific posted a week earlier, but the Bulldogs forced 11 more turnovers against the Pilots while also sending them to the free-throw line just 16 times after giving the Tigers 23 trips.

Watson, who ranks fourth in the WCC at 1.8 steals per game, secured three more on Saturday and had a handful of deflections that led to Portland turnovers. The Zags recently started tracking deflections and tipped balls, according to Watson, and the Gonzaga Prep product is not surprisingly leading the team in both categories.

“I honestly think he’s the best defender in the country,” said Julian Strawther, Gonzaga’s offensive MVP on Saturday after scoring 40 points.

Watson’s size and physicality allow him to match up against the opponent’s top frontcourt player, but he’s also able to guard smaller wings and guards. Watson helped hold Portland’s Tyler Robertson, an all-conference player in 2021-22, to 10 points on 2- of-10 shooting and 0 of 6 from 3-point range.

“The things he can do guarding one through five, no matter who it is,” Strawther said. “The best player on the opposing team, he’s always drawing that matchup and he’s got the quickest hands I’ve seen, tipping passes away, poking the ball from a defender. Even rebounding right now has been just huge.

“Then on the offensive end, I feel like he’s shown a lot too, so I’m just super proud of him.”

The Zags had a rare six-day layoff between conference games and spent much of that time honing on defensive concepts.

“Just a lot of defensive drills, defensive concepts, just trying to figure out what we could do to get stops,” Watson said. “We’ve got a good white squad to go against, and it’s been that all week, really, just basically focusing on defense.”

Many of Watson’s teammates don’t share the same affection for the exhaustive defensive work that’s taken place at Gonzaga practices, but the former four-star recruit and two-time 4A state champion isn’t bothered, acknowledging defense has been his calling card since he starred at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep.

“It’s really not bad for me. If you’ve seen my high school plays, they’re strictly all defense,” he said. “… It’s like going through the motions for me, but for the other guys I think it’s a little bit harder and they’re not probably used to it. But it’s been fun, everyone’s been getting better.”

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