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Standout forward Anton Watson coming back to Gonzaga for fifth season

Gonzaga's Anton Watson reacts after a dunk against Saint Mary's during the first half of a WCC tournament championship basketball game in March.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Anton Watson is returning to Gonzaga for a fifth season.

The 6-foot-8 forward was one of the last players to make their plans known Wednesday night, roughly two hours before the 8:59 deadline for early entrants to withdraw from the NBA draft.

GU posted a tweet at 7 p.m. announcing “22 (Watson’s number) is BACK,” accompanied by a 24-second highlight video. Watson opted to take advantage of an extra COVID-19 season of eligibility instead of turning pro.

Watson’s return helps fortify Gonzaga’s frontcourt as his close friend and three-time All-American Drew Timme moves on to the professional ranks. Timme leaves huge shoes to fill, but the Zags will likely lean on the versatile Watson and Wyoming transfer Graham Ike as starters.

The 6-9, 255-pound Ike was voted Mountain West Conference Preseason Player of the Year but missed last season with a stress reaction in his right foot. He was one of the most productive bigs in the country in 2021-22 when he averaged 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds.

Ben Gregg emerged as the first big off Gonzaga’s bench last season. Forwards Kaden Perry, who was sidelined by a back injury last year, and Braden Huff, who redshirted, also return.

The Zags brought in 6-8 South Korean Jun Seok Yeo in January and signed Alex Toohey, a 6-8 forward from Australia. They also added Eastern Washington wing Steele Venters via the transfer portal.

Watson has capably handled numerous roles the past four seasons, including as a full-time starter for the first time in his career and a major contributor in the Zags’ 31-win season that ended in the Elite Eight in March.

Watson delivered a breakout year with career highs in scoring (11.1 points), rebounds (6.2), assists (2.4), steals (1.8), minutes (29.1) and 3-point accuracy (33.3%).

Watson was All-West Coast Conference honorable mention but made the All-WCC Tournament team after the Zags crushed Saint Mary’s 77-51 in the championship game in Las Vegas.

He made nearly 61% of his shots, including 66.7% inside the 3-point arc last season. His 66 steals ranked fourth on GU’s single-season list and he’s seventh in career steals. He also blocked a career-best 25 shots.

Watson’s points, rebounds and assists averages have increased every season, a trend the Zags hope continues next season when he assumes an even bigger role.

Watson, who led Gonzaga Prep to a pair of State 4A titles, missed the second half of his freshman season as a Zag in 2020 with a shoulder injury, but he was a mainstay in every game over the past three years. He started 17 games in 2021 when the Zags finished 31-1, suffering their only loss of the season to Baylor in the national championship games.

Gonzaga’s record is 121-13 in Watson’s four seasons, including 57-4 in the WCC and 10-3 in the NCAA Tournament. He’s started 59 of his 116 career games.

Watson participated in the NBA G League Elite Camp in Chicago.

He worked out for at least two NBA teams – Atlanta in early May and the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday – but didn’t appear on most two-round mock drafts.

With Wednesday’s announcements – Watson returning and guard Malachi Smith remaining in the draft – the Zags have 11 players on scholarship. The limit is 13, so the Zags still could pursue transfer portal options.