Top freshman Peyton Watson makes the shot that helped UCLA skip First and go straight to the final Fourth

Pretty early in Peyton Watson’s introduction to college basketball in general and UCLA basketball in particular, coach Mick Cronin noticed a disturbing trend: When this highly regarded freshman caught on the ball is after the 3-point line, he will shoot whether he hits the target or not. is being protected, whether he has the ability to connect or not.

After seeing so much of this, Cronin called Watson aside and showed him pre-season training stats. They are not beautiful. Cronin asked Watson if he understood there was anything he could do more effectively than anyone in the gym: “Is there anyone in front of you?”

Watson is modest enough, but he must admit his explosiveness and tackles are helpful in getting the ball deep in defence. Watson still has the freedom to launch open shots, but recklessly close defenders will often find him going the other way when they come.

“It’s been a three-month journey to where we are now: how to train hard, how to play hard,” Cronin told Sporting News. “It was funny, when we had the first script, he came on once and I smiled at him. And he said, ‘Don’t make fun of me, coach, this is my first game!’ Because he was breathing hard. And I’m saying to him, ‘Things are going to be different. You won’t be your best self in our first match. ‘ And he got it. He is a very intelligent child.

“For us to come March, he will be a better player in March. We have a lot of shooters, he’s a bad guy; he can beat his man and break the defense. He’s a great passer when he breaks through defense because he has great vision and size; he can pass the top that others can’t, because of his size. ”

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As UCLA (5-0) prepares for the second big challenge of the 2021-22 season, Tuesday night in Las Vegas against No. 1 Gonzaga (5-0), Watson is near the bottom of the standings with 6.4 points. Each game in just 15 minutes of play. He nearly doubled his scoring average with a 19-point performance in the Bruins’ disappointing Monday night win over Bellarmine and is one of the few Bruins to have received praise from Cronin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Watson remained focused on the game while his more experienced teammates played as if their minds were on the Gonzaga game.

Although Watson is considered a lottery-level prospect for the 2022 NBA Draft, and Cronin admits he doesn’t expect him to play a second season with the Bruins, he’s eager to join a team without a guaranteed position. in the squad as well as not too luxurious. Playtime and shooting opportunities are promised. UCLA has all five players coming back from the NCAA Finals in 2021 and sent last year’s Zags to overtime before losing on a 40-yard shot. It’s a tough squad to break. Watson knew about those men when he signed with the Bruins last fall, though he may not know what they could achieve. That’s okay, because they don’t really know it, until they get there.

Now, UCLA ranks 2nd in the Associated Press’ weekly poll, wing Johnny Juzang is a Sporting News pre-season American, and striker Jaime Jacquez is on the watchlist for the Julius Erving Awards.

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Which leads to the question: For those people, where does Watson fit in with the Bruins? And the answer can only be: Wherever he wants.

Watson told SN: “I see myself as a versatile player and any night they can call me to do something else. “I think I can impact the game in many ways to help complement the players we already have, through my play, just being able to rebound and push, defend, make a My teammates number opens up for the shot. I don’t think I’ll have any problems fitting in. “

In Cronin’s third season, UCLA has catapulted itself into the single-player and do-it-yourself game that, by all accounts, is now more focused on “one” than it is “done”. He respects the coach, his teammates and most obviously his situation. This isn’t uncommon for players planning to apply after a single college season, but those who have been mostly focused on the placement have influenced many promising programs and teams. appointment.

“Our coaching staff communicated in a very modest way about the team,” said Watson. “The way they coach us, the way they teach us the game is very different from any other team I have played against. They want us to play for each other, and that way, when we’re playing for each other, everyone is nice and the team is winning and that’s a good look for the team.

“If I’m doing what’s best for the team, people will know that I’m not selfish, I’m a leader and I don’t always have the ball in my hand to shine.”

Watson grew up in Long Beach and attended Polytechnic High School – best known as Long Beach Poly – which has been a top basketball prospect since Mack Calvin in the ’60s, Johnny Nash in the ’70s to Tyus Edney in the ’90s and Jordan Bell not long ago.

He chose UCLA in part because it was close to his home, but when he walked into the Pauley Pavilion, he felt the same level of respect for his predecessors – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Ed O’Bannon and many others – as he did at Poly.

“I just wanted to add and bring something to a school with some culture and meaning,” says Watson. “Growing up, UCLA was one of my dream schools. I’ll just see all these amazing people come from there. And my uncle graduated from UCLA. It really makes sense for me to add to that tradition and create a legacy here.

“When I got into UCLA, I wanted to do some of my own research, and I was fortunate enough to meet a number of alumni, such as Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Baron Davis. And that makes me even more interested in it. I told Coach Cronin I was watching Tyus Edney’s panoramic typist in March Madness. Those are just things I want to learn more about, and I want to see how people before me have done it so I have that poise and confidence.”

Cronin fielded the same squad for the season-opening win over CSU Bakersfield as he did against Zags last March: Juzang, Jacquez, striker Cody Riley, full-back Tyger Campbell and defender Jules shot. Bernard. The only change since Rutgers switched Myles Johnson in for Riley, who was injured in the game against Bakersfield. Cronin said last week that there is only a “minimal” chance of Riley returning this week, which means Johnson is likely to stay in place against Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme.

However, when all of his players were healthy, Cronin did not commit to using the same team all the time, because Watson and Johnson were clearly players of initial quality. And sophomore Jaylen Clark “has really improved,” Cronin said, and David Singleton remains one of the most reliable players in the college game. He will never be a superstar, but he will do his job and suck the defense if it leaves him open in three.

UCLA struggled during the Pac-12 season last season and had to win a First Four game to make it to the finals of the 64th NCAA Regular Team Tournament. So this isn’t a typical “benefit-for-all” Finalist team, if there is such a thing in colleges for much longer. There must be improvement to finish the pre-season rankings.

What Cronin promises is that the Bruins will, because of their improved depth, work at a faster pace than last season, when they ranked 341st in pacing according to, and a strong speed push should help alleviate any Any personal worries about competing against time. The top players of the team will get as much as possible, more or less.

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“It’s going to be new for us, adjusting and constantly trying to move the ball, move/shoot constantly, speed, never lift it,” Cronin said. “It’s fun for me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but I never did.

“We have to make a decision: Do we rotate the starting lineup? Which, if you do that, it will be based on matches. In the end, the boys wanted to play. Getting started is one thing; Play is what really matters. I think our boys are mature enough to know… they know we have a lot of good players, so we adjusted to be able to play at a higher speed, to make their depth. I become a factor. And I had to be above them on that. It always looks good, but you have to practice running at that pace.”

Watson had to catch up a bit as his senior year at Poly was deeply impacted by COVID. California didn’t start high school basketball season until April, and Poly resumed mid-June; Watson felt bad about leaving the team before its season ended because of commitments to events like the Iverson Classic and the USA Basketball Team for the FIBA ​​U-19 World Cup, as well as early enrollment at the FIBA ​​U-19 World Cup. UCLA.

He has the advantage of competing and winning a gold medal at the World Cup, then going to school at UCLA and participating in a program for summer classes and workouts as well as a full prep regimen in the fall. . Freshmen last year, at UCLA and elsewhere, didn’t always get there. But his high school season lasted only seven games, about 20 games less than usual.

Watson had a rather lackluster first three games, shooting 2 to 12 from the floor and scoring just seven points. However, in the last two games, he has shot more than 50% with 12.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals.

“Last year they had a great run as everyone has seen, and they know what it takes to win. So I’m taking everything I can from the older people on our team,” Watson told SN. “The goal is to go back to exactly where we were last year and keep going and doing all the way. No one here has any lower expectations than that.”

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