We soon begin collecting evidence whether veteran Anton Watson will ascend to the role of Alpha Zag.
Many questions arise regarding the newest edition of the Gonzaga men’s hoop team: Could this be their last conference go-around? How quickly can they assimilate a reconstructed roster? What happens in the aftermath of the heralded Drew Timme Era?
As a tangent to that last unknown, we may fairly debate: Will Watson’s GU longevity and experience translate into a convincing and productive leadership role?
He’s paid his dues with 116 appearances and is coming back for his fifth year, which we might nominate as the lone positive product of the pandemic. He’s 23 and has moved to the head of the class. By seniority alone, it’s his team.
Now, how far can he take it?
By early accounts, Watson returns with a commitment to a leaner/fitter physique and an expanded offensive toolbox.
He’s been a superb role player and complementary sidekick to Timme, but as the school’s all-time leading scorer, Timme left big shoes.
An iconic showman and sometimes savior, Timme led the team in scoring, rebounds and assists as a low-post All-American. But he was also symbolic of Zag swag, nationally recognized for his diverse facial hair, his post-dunk flexes, and more practically, his capacity to lift the Zags to wins even when they seemed nearly impossible.
Fans, coaches, and Watson himself should be clear about one thing as this season unfolds: Watson does not have to be the next Drew Timme for the Zags to succeed, he just needs to be the best possible Anton Watson. Different players, different styles, different personalities.
Indications of Watson’s preparedness are positive. And they may have been triggered by an eye-opening evaluation.
In May, test results from the NBA G League camp revealed that Watson weighed 241 pounds, well above his listed 225 last season. In a recent newspaper feature, Watson outlined his strenuous summer workouts in a boxing gym, the result being a body-fat reduction to a lean 12 percent.
Putting on the gloves may be symbolic of Watson’s approach to this season. “(Coach Mark Few) always tells me to be more aggressive,” Watson said at the recent West Coast Conference’s media gathering.
Surely Few was addressing Watson’s play on the offensive end, because nobody guards with more energy or spends more time on the floor or flying into the stands for loose balls than Watson has. Aggressiveness hasn’t been lacking. So, maybe a more specific goal for him is to become more assertive with the ball on the other end of the court.
Watson almost unwaveringly plays a controlled game, an intelligent game, a game in which he’s smiling and having fun. Mild-mannered, composed.
But there are times when it’s obvious he has another gear he can reach if the situation demands – let’s say a game against a big opponent, or when feeling a personal slight.
In last fall’s Kentucky game, he largely shut down All-American Oscar Tshiebwe, and against No. 4-ranked Alabama, he scored 17 and came up with four steals. These were big-time performances.
On rarer occasions, though, he’s displayed an ability to reach down further and find another gear, as if supercharged. Turbo Watson.
Most visibly, Turbo Watson was unleashed in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament last March. Despite being acknowledged by many as one of the best complementary players in the country, he was left off the WCC’s First- and Second-Team selections, being lumped in as Honorable Mention.
The entire GU team noted the oversight, but especially Watson.
San Francisco had a good team, but Watson immediately scored on a couple power drives and cuts, and added a pair of audacious 3-point bombs. In the first 6:30 of the game, he had 13 points on his way for 20 for the game, along with seven boards, three assists and two blocks.
The display got everyone’s attention. As Few said, heading into the NCAA Tournament, Watson “has been our MVP down the stretch.”
That version of Watson, fully engaged and high-revving, can contribute enormously to another exceptional GU season.
Will expanded scoring responsibilities take away from his defensive focus? And will an offensive emergence cause opponents to put him at the top of their “to-stop” lists now that Timme’s gone? All possibilities.
But consider some of Watson’s indicator statistics. His 66 steals last season were more than any player in Gonzaga history not named John Stockton, and every other player on that top-10, all-time, single-season list was a guard. Watson’s anticipation, quick hands and hoops intellect won’t be changed by taking a few more shots.
He averaged 11.1 points last season, while taking just 7.4 shots a game. Adding another half dozen would still be a conservative expectation.
Few raved about Watson’s preparations for his final season. “I’m proud of him for the man he’s become and how hard he’s worked … trying to develop more parts of his game,” Few said at the WCC media event. “He’s always been a winner … he does all the things that add up to the team getting a victory.”
Few knows the value of Watson’s experience in a system that has been constructed on a tradition of selflessness and toughness and teamwork.
As they’ve evolved in the era of athlete free-agency, Few and his staff have been adept at finding high-talent players who fit the established molds.
There will be three new starters and a handful of new contributors on this team. It’s hard to artfully paste together such a collage of disparate talents. But, in Watson, they have a player to imprint their expectations.
Through decades of success, Zag tribal culture has been handed down from the elders, who show the youngbloods what it takes.
Given these times of athletic transience and impermanence, one can wonder if the changes will at some point overwhelm the traditions.
But for now, there’s Anton Watson, who came back to tell the stories, to show The Way, to tend the flame.