Year in review: Anton Watson’s immeasurable yet valuable impact

There are certain players whose impact can’t be measured by simple box score statistics. A great game for them isn’t shown through points and rebounds, but through hustle plays and solid defense. Doing the dirty work is their calling, with the potential to break out on the scoreboard every once in a while, and it can go unnoticed until all those little moments add up to make a difference in the outcome of a ballgame.

Zags fans, you know him as Anton Watson; quantifying his game isn’t easy, but the versatility and hustle he brought off the bench were undeniably valuable to the Zags. Some expected him to take a jump offensively as a junior, and while he showed flashes, the consistency wasn’t quite there yet. Still, his ability to guard multiple positions and wreak havoc in the zone press made him the team’s spark plug as the sixth man.

Watson didn’t thrive in his role out of the gate, at least offensively. He averaged 3.6 points per game on 41.7% shooting from the field through the first eight games of the season, including three scoreless outings. There weren’t many opportunities for him to find his shot, either, as he attempted just three field goals per game in that stretch. Utilized as a screen-setter and high-post passer, he didn’t receive many looks in the post or out on the perimeter.

Instead, his hustle and tenacity created scoring opportunities in other ways. Whether it was through putbacks on the offensive glass or fastbreak points off tipped passes, his dirty work was appreciated on both ends of the floor. Those extra opportunities that couldn’t be accounted for in the gameplan became Watson’s calling card, and it paid off immensely for his development.

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Any player knows the best way to dig out of a slump is through easy baskets, and in Watson’s case, he had to create those for himself.

Come winter, his drive kicked into another gear. He notched double figures four times in five December games, including his first-career double-double against North Alabama. Conference play kicked off with a bang, as he dropped 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting against Pepperdine, a season-high for shot attempts. His activity on the boards increased, and as a result, he generated those much-needed easy looks around the rim.

A confidence booster for sure, Watson’s impact expanded to new levels. His shot attempts jumped from 3.6 to 6.8 per game in December and January, and yet he became more efficient shooting the ball as well. His effort on defense never wavered either, even if it didn’t always show in the box score.

But once again, inconsistencies prevented the next stage in development. A 16-point performance against Pepperdine was followed by three straight games without a made field goal to close the regular season. Watson regained some footing in the WCC tournament, but unfortunately it never carried over in the big dance where he tallied one point in two games.

There’s certainly more to be desired with Watson on the offensive end, especially when it comes to stretching the floor, but the blueprint is there. An offseason to develop a jumper would do him and the Zags wonders next year with Efton Reid likely occupying the low block in the center position. He’s shown he can be a capable passer in high-low sets, and the threat of him shooting would open up those passing lanes even more.

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Over the course of three seasons, Watson has shown he can be one of the best defensive players in the conference. On the perimeter, his long arms make any shot attempt or pass that much more difficult, while his frame keeps him upright in the post against taller matchups. At 6-foot-7, he might lack the physical traits seen in traditional rim protectors, but that doesn’t stop him from challenging drives to the rim and taking the necessary charge to halt a fastbreak.

As an experienced senior, Watson could certainly make a case for WCC defensive player of the year honors. Since he was a freshman, his 88.4 defensive rating over three seasons is the best stretch for any WCC player since 2010. Should the trend continue in a larger role, he’d make life miserable for the rest of the league.

Pair his existing defensive prowess with a more consistent offensive game, and the sky’s the limit for Watson in 2022-23.