On draft night, June 23rd 2022, the Nuggets had two first round picks. They picked Kansas swingman Christian Braun with the 21st pick. A relatively safe bet to be a productive role player — a high floor sort of pick. With the 30th pick, Nuggets’ GM Calvin Booth had his guy still on the board. Peyton Watson from UCLA was a highly touted recruit from Long Beach Polytechnic High School. He was ranked as a 5 star recruit by 247 Sports, ESPN, and many others.
Coming out of high school, he was renowned for his defensive versatility, athleticism, and high offensive upside. He had a massive growth spurt throughout his high school years and was still learning to use his new found frame. He was still oozing with potential, and was one of the nation’s best high school players. Going into Peyton’s senior season, he was primed to show more progression within his game. However, COVID-19 had other ideas. The worldwide pandemic shut down high school basketball during his senior season. That lead to him missing crucial developmental minutes in high school. He committed to UCLA under the assumption he would be a high minutes player. That didn’t end up happening though — UCLA had a Final Four run in March Madness, and most of the roster returned. That came as a surprise to just about everyone. This lead to Watson being buried behind UCLA veterans, an — again — a lack of playing time.
When he did play at UCLA, it was evident that he was raw. The jump shooting and finishing was not where you would want a recruit of Peyton’s caliber to be at. However, the defense was still impressive and he had flashes of what made people excited for his offensive game in high school — a 6’8” wing with dribbling, playmaking, and athleticism. Sometimes when he was given the opportunity, the passing would show through. Scouts saw that there was still upside to be had with Peyton. The Nuggets’ front office honed in on him as an upside swing.
There is a possibility that he doesn’t develop in the ways the organization wants him to, but everyone involved feels comfortable with the journey that Peyton is going to go on. I sat down with Calvin Booth and he gave Peyton his full endorsement, “We took the lack of production at UCLA into account, it could be attributed to COVID. It’s been a weird time for a lot of these kids. As far as from a development stand point, when you have something you can do that can get you on the court, that’s a big part of development. With Peyton’s defense I felt like that was going to get him on the court and give him a chance to play. The richest development opportunity is NBA minutes, so that’s been the goal. We’ll sit down with the player development staff and Coach Malone to discuss his development.”
It’ll be important for Peyton’s game to start simple and let him find his role. He’s going to be playing for an organization with star players already in place. The Nuggets have a superstar and title aspirations. So Peyton Watson will have to find a way to fit into that. Calvin Booth said, “The whole time since we drafted him it’s been consolidate, simplify so he can try and get himself on the court. I think he’s just going to have to be astute enough to realize who he’s on the court with and when not to push the envelope as far as being aggressive. I don’t want to curb his aggression and he needs to be able to make mistakes. He’ll play a role for us initially, whenever he does get on the court. I think he has tremendous upside as a real two-way player. I don’t think boxing him in would be the way to go. He has to go in to a more sophisticated development model where he’s trying things, scoring a lot, maybe being aggressive or shooting too much in a Summer League or G-League setting. Then when he gets out there with Joker, Jamal, Kentavious, Aaron, and Mike he’s going to have to play for the boss. You can’t have 4 turnovers, you can’t take 5 shots in the first quarter and go 2 for 5. I think right now it’s good for him to go explore a little bit. He’s one of the primary options on this team. The aggression is not a bad thing for this setting.”
Peyton echoed a lot of these sentiments when I talked to him. I asked him what skills he wanted to focus on the most for this upcoming season and he said, “Definitely moving without the ball because we have the best passer in today’s game. I want to make the MVP of our league’s job easier and free up some space for him so that he can create his own shot and we can get easy offense. I feel my value as a cutter is going to be big time to this team. Knocking down that catch and shoot three consistently when I get it.”
He and the front office have a common goal in mind — mold his game to be an elite defender. Denver hasn’t often had top of the line defenders and Peyton Watson has the upside to be an All-Defensive team caliber defender. Given his length, mobility, and high defensive feel it’s very apparent that he has all the tools to make it work on that end of the court. Calvin Booth has said he sees Peyton Watson’s ceiling as an All-Defensive team tier of defender. Peyton still has steps to take to get there. When asked what his next steps in his development to reach those sorts of levels, Peyton said, “I think just getting acclimated to the NBA game. Knowing I’m a rookie and that I won’t get that call over Steph, I won’t get that call over LeBron and just getting onto the next play. Keep going and going and going. There are obviously guys who have played over 1000 more NBA games than me. So I got to just get acclimated quick and just compete.”
Calvin Booth said much of the same. That Peyton needs to just be a more consistent defender — it’s something that’ll come with reps. “You have to be trustworthy. The first play of the game I was sitting next to Coach Malone. He’s a scout, you know he knows what the game plan is, the personnel and the like. The first play of the game was a handoff and he was supposed to gap it. He trailed it — which is a mistake — but you know, then he made an incredible play and he blocked a lob. We like the block, we like the recovery and the effort. You have to follow the game plan though. The game plan discipline is something Coach Malone was talking about. Executing the defensive game plan to a t, studying the match up, being able to keep yourself on the court by playing smart and not playing too aggressive on the other side of the court. To play defense you have to be on the court and to be on the court you have to play the right way when you’re out there with certain guys.”
Peyton has been able to really play in long periods of time for the first time since high school during Summer League. He’s made tangible improvements in the brief time he’s been in summer league. He looks more confident on tape, and while it’s not the role he would play for the Nuggets right now he’s got to show more of his game than he did at UCLA. Live game reps are the best reps to get and when asked how these games have helped he said, “I mean it’s been great to get real live game reps. There’s nothing like it, you can’t replicate it. I’m one of those people who progresses pretty fast. I’m taking in everything I can. I’m trying to be a sponge out here and learn as much as I can before we get to the NBA season.”
One of those skills he’s been able to show has been his playmaking. It still has room to grow, but he has shown good flashes of being a passer. Coach Ryan Bowman has run lineups with Peyton at the point guard. There have been turnovers, but there have also been encouraging signs for him as a playmaker and passer. There have been lobs, live dribbles passes, and he’s been making the extra pass so far. When asked about his playmaking, “I think I bring a lot to the table on the playmaking side. I’m 6’8”, I can dribble, and I can see over the defense. I really pride myself in doing that. I’m an unselfish player and I just want to make the best play for the team, you know what I’m saying? Whether that’s me shooting and scoring or me finding my teammate open for a basket. I think my value as a playmaker comes with having my ball in the hand more and allowing myself to develop as a ball handler.”
There were very real struggles for Peyton Watson at Summer League. He was inefficient and still very raw offensively. However, he has the front office’s full backing and the right mindset moving forward to eventually put it together. It’s likely that Peyton ends up playing for most of the season in the G-League with the Nuggets’ affiliate the Grand Rapids Gold. From there he will see what he can and can’t do, what he needs to improve at, and get valuable in game reps. Peyton Watson said, “I think it [spending time in the G-League] would help me a lot. Like I said, it’s live game reps against pros. It’s something that definitely builds confidence, get reps in, and get brought up to the NBA level so you can hit the ground running.”
Watson’s game still has a lot of room for improvement, and it’s not a sure fire thing that he will develop how the Nuggets’ front office see him developing. However, the front office and Peyton himself both have the right attitude moving forward to refine his physical tools and potential into a tangible player. An archetype that the Nuggets’ have looked for for years and years. If Peyton Watson hits, the Nuggets will finally have a lockdown defender.