How much fun have the last two games been?
First, you had Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas, Malcolm Miller, Paul Watson Jr., and Dewan Hernandez closing out the Philadelphia 76ers, and that was followed up with an encore performance from Johnson and Watson. It’s even been enough to sway me on the merits of an 82-game season. (Yes, there were only 70-ish games this season but bear with me.)
In my dream world (since there’s too much revenue to be lost in the short term), the NBA has a 58-game schedule. Each team plays each other twice, the games have greater context, and the recommendations of sports science regarding rest and recovery can be implemented to a far greater degree. But then you watch two games like the ones Wednesday and Friday night, and you appreciate a bit more that there’s no such thing as a meaningless game for the players.
How much would a shorter season stifle a two-way contract player’s opportunities at the parent club? Would a player who has struggled to find his way and battled injuries ever get a chance to have that feel-good moment? Especially with the Raptors’ development system and the success the Raptors 905 have had in churning out NBA-ready talent, the downside of less games hit me like a brick through a window these last few days.
Even head coach Nick Nurse didn’t have much of a clue about who Paul Watson Jr. was early on in the season, but he’s been given no choice but to learn quickly.
“He’s pretty good, he can play,” Nurse said after Toronto defeated Denver 117-109 for a 7-1 seeding games record. “Talking about comprehending our defensive schemes, he’s done great; really good passer; worked on some of the mechanics of his shooting and he’s just eaten that all up and put in the extra work on that and it showed up here. He vaulted up and made shots. He’s a good size. He can play.
“He’s gonna be part of our future from what I can see so far.”
Watson finished with 22 points on 13 shots, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in 27 minutes off the bench. It may have been a Cinderella night, it may have done wonders for their confidence and spark them in a different way going forward.
There was enough to suggest the latter Friday night, so let’s take a closer look.
SHOOTING FROM DEEP
What stands out to me in the video below is the consistency in Watson’s shooting form. He gets good elevation, has a nice straight-up and straight-down motion, and follow-through. This is tested in the first three plays where Nikola Jokic and Bol Bol look to contest his shot, but you see no impact on how he shoots the ball.
Now, in the fourth play at the 0:27 mark you can see how that hurts him as he hasn’t quite built the separation he needs from the defender, but overall, the fact that he’s repeating the same motion over and over again is the clearest sign that he has a dependable jumper. At 6-foot-6, that type of elevation and release at the peak is going to be tough to block.
The sound is up on the sixth and final play to highlight the pure comedy of Jack Armstrong wanting the Raptors to milk clock to help preserve a victory and Watson firing away right on cue. Personally, I’m a big fan of taking good shots if they present themselves mid-clock. You don’t want to go too early unless you’re in transition and have a layup or a dunk, but in this case, with a seven-point lead and about 12 seconds on the shot clock with under two minutes remaining, it’s a clean look for a player who’s been knocking them down in the game and there’s every chance you don’t get a better look.
CREATING OFF THE BOUNCE
In a league that’s trending more toward skill-ball on a daily basis, one can’t afford to just be a shooter anymore. We’ve already seen Thomas add a bit more to round out his offensive game with some dribble moves, and Watson showed that he’s got some creativity off the bounce as well.
The first play below shows his ability to shake a defender with a crossover going both ways, and once that creates an angle to drive, Watson shows good basketball IQ to gather the ball and go into the body of his defender to create separation, allowing for an open look at the basket. He misses the look, but it’s a really good move nonetheless. The second play again shows him using the gather to go into the body, this time drawing a foul for free-throws. The third play highlights Bol’s talent as a defender but Watson should also have a bit better awareness as nothing much happens with his crossover and there’s no level of separation created. Bol is skinny, but Watson’s going to need to add a bit more to his frame to gain separation from bigs.
Play #4 at the 0:22 mark is the type of move that will help Watson immensely in the long-term. With the type of shooting stroke he possesses, when defenders are chasing him a bit too hard around screens as in this example, his ability to make a move going left and rise up for an uncontested floater can be a ceiling-changer. Just like the elevation on his jumper, though, I’d like to see him rise up for a bit more balance on the floater that should help him stick it.
The final two plays highlight Watson’s ability to quickly survey the floor and make a decision. In transition, he merely suggests engaging in a dribble hand-off with Johnson, and the slightest look to Johnson by Watson’s man Keita Bates-Diop sees him cross to the right, gather and finish for the and-1. And then finally, Watson quickly recognizes that the Nuggets have miscommunicated on their screen coverage and takes full advantage by driving all the way to the rack and finishing with the dunk.
“I’m just versatile, I can do different things, make open shots, get to the basket, play hard on defence,” Watson said after the game on what he was trying to show Nurse. “Just really do whatever’s asked of me, just know my role, come in and do my job and play hard.”
It’s hard to make too much of Watson’s defence as he spent the majority of his time on that end of the floor away from primary actions and defending the corners, but there were a few things that stuck out about his defensive awareness.
In the first play above, Watson is focused on his man Bates-Diop, but the second he recognizes that Troy Daniels is open, he fights away from his man and gets out to Daniels to force him inside the arc. Daniels ends up making the shot anyway, but the Raptors pride themselves on trust on the defensive end of the floor, and in that moment, Watson could have easily taken the selfish route and stayed with his man, but instead tried to contest someone else for the sake of his teammate.
To follow that up, Watson shows his willingness to fight through a screen to draw an offensive foul (Noah Vonleh is far too eager to slip away for a 3-point look) and then also hustles back in transition to help out Stanley Johnson. You can see that right up until Tyler Cook loses the ball, Watson is trying to time a chase-down block. When Cook does lose it, Watson’s hustle means he collects it comfortably ahead of Bol. How many times do you see the offensive player out in transition miss because of a good contest from who he’s going up against, only for that defender’s effort to go wasted because the offensive team has another player ready to clean up?
The plays above show it wasn’t all rosy for Watson. There was miscommunication on a screen with Davis that leads to an open three — I do think Davis is the one who needs to switch here and not stick with his man — and players need to ensure they’re on the same page with these types of actions. In the second play, Watson does a good job initially guarding on-ball, but once switched onto Mason Plumlee, allows for a lane to the basket as the Denver centre smartly spins around him for the dive. That’s the type of thing you learn from with time and with all the good he showed, you can bet Nurse will be patient through the learning moments.
Trust from a head coach can work wonders in that regard, and Watson described how that extends beyond just being handed minutes.
“It starts really in the practice gym, working on our individual games, the things he sees us do each and every day,” Watson said of the trust Nurse shows. “We go out there and we don’t do anything that we’re not working on outside of our role or what we’re capable of. And when it’s time to play, we get in there and do those things and execute. That’s where the trust comes.”
The 25-year-old also credited Norman Powell for being an accessible veteran who’s constantly instilling confidence as well as Mississauga, Ont., native Oshae Brissett as someone who has made him feel comfortable within the Raptors organization.
Watson plays like he belongs, certainly isn’t lacking in confidence, and has shown a genuine desire to repay the faith the team shows in him. It has consistently been the Raptors’ way since the introduction of the 905, being given an inch and feeling empowered to take a yard.