Toronto Raptors 2019-20 Player Review: Paul Watson Jr. could be Toronto’s latest discovery

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When we previewed the Raptors 905 season preview, going through several key players to watch on the squad: none of them was named Paul Watson Jr.

When the 905 traded for Watson’s returning rights before the G League Draft, I did some digging. His highlights from his Fresno State days looked good — he’s got an NBA-ready body, with a nice combination of size, length, and athleticism necessary for any wing prospect. Watson’s highlights showed that he can hit the occasional perimeter shot, slash to the basket, crash the boards, and dunk on people’s heads.

Watson’s highlights and his physical tools made me wonder why he was not drafted back in 2017. He was already 22 years old (turning 23 later that year) at draft time. To evaluators’ eyes, you have to be an exceptional talent as a senior to be in the draft conversation. Unfortunately for Watson, he had an “OK” collegiate career that didn’t have the expected upside trajectory, even after winning the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year.

The Toronto Raptors had their eye on Watson early. They had him in for a pre-draft workout back in 2017. After going undrafted, he played on the Raptors’ Summer League team that featured Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby. Watson played for the Westchester Knicks for a couple of years but was in a complementary player to New York’s bigger name prospects.

Time kept passing. Then, Raptors 905 coach Jama Mahlalela coached Watson on the 2019 G League International Elite team last year. Watson showed enough developmental strides that the Raptors wanted a closer look — which led to his trade to the 905.

Initial Raptors 905 Stint

When the 2019-20 G League season started, Raptors fans had their eyes on the team’s prospects: Dewan Hernandez, Oshae Brissett, and Shamorie Ponds. Tyler Ennis’ addition to the team along with other highly-regarded prospects like Devin Robinson and Jawun Evans made it seem like Watson was have a similar complementary role as he had with the Westchester Knicks. Instead, Watson came out with guns blazing and often looked like the 905’s best perimeter option, if not the team’s best player.

Watson’s big step offensively had him averaging 19 points while shooting 42.5 percent on seven 3-point attempts per game — impressive numbers for a player sliding between the second and fourth scoring option. I actually was convinced back in December that Watson needed to be more assertive, that he could do even more if he went for it. His 905 performance did not go unnoticed as he earned his first call-up with the Atlanta Hawks for a 10-day contract.

Raptors Two-Way Contract

The Raptors quickly moved on Watson once the Hawks released him. They signed him to a two-way contract (and released Ponds). From there, Watson became one of the 905’s top scoring options, getting more opportunities to be featured on their offense. As a result, he got more reps to work on his pull-up game and became more proficient in creating a shot for himself or his teammates.

In short, we got some idea of what Watson could — or couldn’t — do with the ball in his hands. To begin with, his drives to the basket looked good once he got some separation from his defender. His passing game remained a work-in-progress, but early signs suggested that he could see the floor well and hit his open teammates. As an added bonus: the 905’s crunch time offense ran through Watson later in the season.

Watson did struggle with his three-point shot when he returned to the Raptors 905, going for 4-for-23 (17 percent) behind the arc in his first four games back. However, he finished their abbreviated season by going 44-for-99 (44.4 percent).

As a late (official) addition to the title-contending Raptors, Watson couldn’t get rotation minutes. He appeared in three garbage time minutes before the league got suspended. Still, Watson managed to show his athleticism off anyway.

I mean, just look at this block.

Once in the Bubble, Watson’s best game as a Raptor came along when he joined forces with Stanley Johnson to take down the Denver Nuggets. In that game, he displayed a game consistent with what he had been doing with the 905. He dropped an efficient 22 points on 13 shots, going 4-of-6 from three. It was a meaningless game, but Watson carried himself well. Here’s a look at the highlight reel:

Areas of Development

Watson is on the same timeline as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet once were, as he is only a few months younger than them. That means the Raptors need to find out what they have in Watson soon and where he fits in the team’s immediate future. Watson has shown what he can do at the G League level. All that’s left to do is test his skills against NBA-level competition.

Watson’s ability to spot up and pull-up behind the arc with a defender on him should be transferable. He’s also pretty good at reading the defense and moving off-ball, using his ability to cut and get up quick for a finish.

Watson’s defense is also promising. He makes sound defensive reads and plays the passing lane well enough. He’s shown a lot of effort on shot-contest and scramble situations — a Raptors’ specialty — while also being able to switch and battle on the boards, which should get him in coach Nick Nurse’s good graces. Watson also didn’t back down against bigger players when the 905 played micro-small ball. That should help in the NBA.

As a wing, Watson’s handles could use some polish. As a perimeter threat, he’ll need to be able to play off of defensive pressure out there when he gets run off the line. At the very least, it would lessen the chance of him turning the ball over. It was a bit of a struggle for Watson driving to the basket to create something, as he was known to lose the ball in traffic. Still, his straight-line drives look great once he gets some separation from his defender. That’s something to build on.

Looking Forward with Watson

During the Bubble’s seeding games, Nurse mentioned that Watson will be a big part of their future. That’s a good sign, having the head coach ready to give him his break. The Raptors are entering a weird upcoming season. We don’t know what timeline Masai Ujiri will be pursuing for next year. Still, we know that his moves will be influenced by the 2021 free agency bonanza.

What we do know is that the Raptors could end up being short on wings soon. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are the key building blocks for Toronto, but who is coming up behind them? Known quantities Stanley Johnson, Malcolm Miller, and (to a lesser extent) Oshae Brissett are the other wings under contract next year, so Watson could have a chance to compete for a regular roster spot — and perhaps crack Toronto’s the rotation. It all comes down to whether Watson can take his game to another level.

The groundwork for Watson’s next big jump is already in the works. It’s been reported that he’s going to work out with Rico Hines, one of the best trainers out there, this off-season. It would be great to see if Watson can become Toronto’s next diamond-in-the-rough story.