This is part of a series of player reviews from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.
I don’t understand why Paul Watson Jr. isn’t still a Toronto Raptors. No, let me rephrase: I don’t like that Paul Watson Jr. isn’t still a Toronto Raptor.
Watson Jr. did everything the Raptors asked of him, but it didn’t matter. Toronto has a specific philosophy when it comes to the end of the roster. They churn it, whipping and frothing in the hope that future rotation players will distinguish themselves and rise to the top. It means diamonds in the rough like Chris Boucher won G-League MVPs and NBA contracts while solid players like Jordan Loyd, Alize Johnson, or Oshae Brissett might fall by the wayside. Lose the many good in search of the few great, or something like that.
There’s something to that philosophy, certainly. The NBA has something like 500 roster spots, and the last 50 could probably be filled successfully by 200 players (or more) in the world. It’s a broad scope of talent that can fulfill specific roles across the ends of rosters. So Toronto has tried to use those scarce end-of-bench minutes by searching for players who can do those specific roles and more, players who can play actual rotation minutes and offer unique benefits.
But Watson Jr. seemed to fulfill expectations for either ‘good’ or ‘great,’ when it came to the end-of-the-bench finds. He always shot well when given time, which is extremely difficult for players who don’t know where or when minutes will come. And he has given memorable moments. Watson Jr. scored a career high of 30 points last year in Tampa Bay in his first-ever start, giving Toronto one of the few moments upon which any joy in the season was based. But it wasn’t just a single moment that showed Watson Jr. belonged. He shot 46.6 percent from deep over two seasons with the Raptors. His defense was spectacular at times and mostly solid throughout his tenure. In a league that seems to prioritize 3-and-D players for final roster spots, Watson Jr. seemed to fulfill that mandate as well or better than most of the 15th men throughout the league. And yet he finds himself without a current home in the NBA.
The trajectory of Watson’s tenure with the Raptors was similar to that of Malcolm Miller. Both thrived with the Raptors 905, if not playing like league MVPs. Both shot well given opportunities with the big club, though never seizing real roles like Boucher or other G-League players who’ve made the jump. Both were great teammates. And Miller was not extended a qualifying offer during the 2019-20 offseason, which made him a casualty of commission, much like Watson during this offseason. Both were good. But the Raptors have been in search of great with those final few roster spots.
Toronto’s philosophy when it comes to the end of the roster make sense. Finding rotation players is extremely difficult, and Toronto has such a solid foundation that skill seems to be the only concern. As long as Toronto has locker-room leaders at the top of the rotation — take exhibit A, one Fred VanVleet — then prioritizing the locker room at the bottom of the roster becomes less important. The Raptors know what Watson Jr. can offer. The idea is that new draft picks like David Johnson might be able to offer more over the long term. Certainty at the end of the roster is a negative, so to speak.
When Khem Birch came to Toronto, he applauded the environment that allowed him to expand his game in ways he was never able to attempt in Orlando. That’s admirable, but Birch was a starter without anyone breathing down his neck for playing time. Toronto doesn’t offer the same freedom to everyone across the roster. (To be fair, no NBA franchise does.) Watson’s two years in Toronto will go down as ultimately successful, though without enough diversity in skillset to stay in town over the long term. Who knows what he could have done with more freedom.
And so Watson, like many before him, will find himself without a job in Toronto moving forward. It makes sense, given Toronto’s philosophy. But it must be frustrating for Watson himself. He did everything asked of him during his two years with the Raptors. And doing so, without doing more, leaves him without a job going forward. It’s very possible that the Raptors will find a future rotation player in the mix of Yuta Watanabe, Dalano Banton, Ish Wainright, and the like. The team decided that Watson couldn’t offer that, which is of course their prerogative. It doesn’t make the business at the end of the roster any less painful for those who fall by the wayside.
We will be hosting multiple fantasy basketball leagues this year for those interested. They will be standard 9-cat leagues on Yahoo with up to 12 people a league. Winners will get the lions share of the pot, and a limited edition 1 of 1 NFT’s from our inaugural Cyber $RAPS series. To RSVP for the tournament (no need for money now), click here.