At the end of last season, with the Denver Nuggets wrapping up a one seed for the first time in franchise history, a somewhat peculiar occurrence happened. The Nuggets elected to give legitimate rotation minutes to a player who had essentially not been part of the team the entire year. Denver and coach Michael Malone saw something though. They saw a young player who could make a difference. That player is Peyton Watson. With the Nuggets now in the throes of their repeat campaign, Watson has become more and more an integral part of the rotation and an impact player on the court. I argue that he is destined for even greater things, potentially full blown stardom, and with Aaron Gordon’s injury Watson’s time to fulfill his promise is upon him.

Watson’s story in Denver begins with General Manager Calvin Booth. Watson’s college career was largely unremarkable. He spent just one season at UCLA before declaring for the NBA draft and during that single season he was a reserve who didn’t see a ton of playing time. Despite being a highly touted prospect and the best high-school player to come out of California in 2021, he appeared in thirty-two games at UCLA but averaged just twelve minutes a game for the 2021/2022 season. That lack of a body of work caused Peyton to slide in the draft. Almost no one had him pegged as a first round pick in their 2022 NBA mock draft (shout out to Jeremy Woo and Jonathan Givony who were two of the very few that had Peyton as a first rounder) but most saw him going early in the second round. Booth wasn’t going to let that happen though. The Nuggets owned the 22nd and 30th (aka the very last 1st round pick) picks in the draft. They took Christian Braun at 22 and at 30, Booth took the chance and selected Watson (much to the delight of ESPN’s Bobby Marks and to the chagrin of Richard Jefferson).

Booth’s faith in Peyton did not pay immediate dividends. Watson’s limited minutes and time in college made him a very raw prospect. With the Nuggets in the middle of what would turn out to be a title run, there was little time for a twenty year old rookie who was still developing his game, particularly with the Nuggets already making several acquisitions for players who could play now on the wings including Braun, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And so it was that Watson was relegated to the G-League. He played twelve games in the NBA’s developmental league in ’22/’23 honing his craft. Jefferson’s concerns about Peyton’s scoring prowess were proven to be unfounded. After averaging just three points a game in limited opportunities in college, Watson shined when he made the step up to the G-League, averaging nearly 20 points a game to go with over 7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.5 stocks. He was stuck in that no man’s land though: clearly better than the average G-Leaguer but still not good enough to be in an NBA rotation or at least not in the Nuggets rotation.

Ultimately, PWat got his chance at the end of the season. Now with a full year of practicing at the NBA level and getting big minutes at the G-League level, Watson started to show he could be an impactful player on an NBA court. Over the first 76 games of the Nuggets ’22/’23 season, Watson appeared in a game 17 times, never once playing more than ten minutes. In the last six games of the season he played in every one, never playing for less than seventeen minutes and getting two starts along the way. Now, some of this was because the Nuggets largely had the one seed wrapped up but it is important to note Denver did not actually clinch the top seed in the playoffs until game 80, four games after Watson was inserted into the rotation. Peyton would end up largely not playing in the playoffs but those six games at the end of the year were a glimpse of what was to come. One thing was for sure, Watson could play at the NBA level and could cause problems for opponents, particularly with his ability to run in transition, finish at the rim and provide weakside shot blocking.

That six game run for Peyton translated into a full rotation role this season and he’s made the most of it. The start of the season was a bit slow but in the third game of the year he exploded for one of his best performances while the Nuggets blew the doors off their division rival Oklahoma City Thunder in their home opener. As the year has progressed, Peyton finds himself getting more and more opportunities and minutes from the coaching staff and that continues to pay dividends for the Nuggets, particularly on the defensive end. Watson averages nearly a block and half a steal a game in just seventeen minutes. Beyond the counting stats, the eye test and coach Malone’s decisions tell us even more. Watson is proving to be a lockdown type defender. Never was this more apparent than in Denver’s December 1st game against the Phoenix Suns. Malone elected to have Watson defend Kevin Durant, one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers, and PWat flat out locked him up. Though Durant would ultimately end the night with 30 points, he shot an abysmal 32% from the field (his second worst shooting performance all season) and was visibly frustrated all night long. Throughout the month of December Malone is relying on Peyton more and more and often times goes to him to close games when the team needs a defensive stopper. There’s been some growing pains along the way, sure, but by and large Swatson has given Denver just what they asked from him.

Now the Nuggets find themselves without Gordon for an indefinite period of time. The nature of Gordon’s injury, twenty-one stitches on the hand and face as a result of a dog attack on Christmas, makes pinning a recovery timeline difficult. Beyond the physical injury, an event like that is clearly very traumatic and will have a large mental impact as well. It can be even more emotionally draining if the dog in question was in fact Gordon’s own as dog attacks on humans that cause serious injury almost always result in euthanizing the animal. So right now Gordon very well could be dealing with the physical pain of being repeatedly bitten, the mental struggle of an extremely traumatic event, and the emotional confusion of having your faithful pet attack you and then have to be put down. No one should expect AG to be back until he’s fully ready and that could very well take some time. Meanwhile it’s business as usual for the NBA and the Nuggets have a slate of games in front of them that include the revitalized Memphis Grizzlies, the aforementioned rival Thunder and a trip to one of the most difficult places in the NBA to play in the Chase Center which is home to the Golden State Warriors.

The Nuggets will need to find a way to replace Gordon in the interim and there is no better candidate than Watson. He is not as talented as Gordon, not yet at least, and he does not have the same physical stature as Gordon who is built like a tank, but Peyton has earned the right to start. The Nuggets also benefit from having a 6’10 small forward in Michael Porter Jr. so even though according to some rumors Peyton grew about three inches in the offseason (he is still officially listed as 6’7″), the Nuggets won’t be hurt much by sliding in a shorter player for Gordon because they can simply shift MPJ to play the four and let Watson play the three. Malone can pick and choose how he wants to unleash Peyton on opposing offenses as well. He can stick MPJ on whichever forward presents a larger outside threat and let Watson roam and hunt blocks, or he can stick Peyton on the opposition’s top wing threat and look for him to lock that guy up just like KD. Point being, out of all Denver’s reserves if they are looking to replicate Gordon’s defensive versatility, Watson makes the most sense. It remains to be seen if coach Malone will elect to go that way though, as he often chooses not to mess with the rotation as a whole and slots Justin Holiday, who is not a rotation player when Denver is healthy, in with the starting unit when one of the normal 2-4 starters is out.

There’s benefit to putting Watson with the starting unit on offense too though. We saw in Summer League, and at times during the regular season, that Watson is not as his best when he’s asked to be a focal point of the offense. While there certainly is improvement on his end in terms of playmaking ability and the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, far too often when he’s asked to be a scorer we see Watson forcing plays, taking contested jumpers and the offense as a whole bogging down. When Peyton is at his best offensively is when he’s asked to not do too much. He’s an excellent rim runner in transition and he’s also a fantastic cutter. Additionally, his finishing ability in general, not just on dunks, is showing great improvement this year. While his three point shooting hasn’t been a strength, he has been better lately and brought his average from deep up to 36.5% which is exactly league average this season. All of that points to Peyton being incredibly effective with the starting unit where Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic draw the majority of the defense’s attention leaving Peyton free to cut, get out in transition and shoot open threes from the corner. Holiday can do those things too, and does them well, but Peyton does it better and replicates more of what Gordon can do on both ends. Additionally, it’s pretty clear he’s developing great chemistry with Jokic both on and off the court.

Holiday is also not part of Denver’s long term plans. The fact of the matter is with the NBA salary cap structured the way it is and with Denver’s current salary distribution what it is there is going to be more hard decisions to come. KCP in all likelihood will be a free agent this offseason (he has a player option for next year) and Aaron Gordon the year after that. The Nuggets have over $114 million, or just under 85% of the cap, dedicated to Murray, Porter and Jokic this season and that number only goes up, particularly with Jamal due for an extension this Summer. If the Nuggets continue to have success and in particular if they continue to compete for and win titles, team’s will come looking for the final piece to their own championship builds and will be willing to spend a premium to get guys who have proven they can do it. We saw it last year with Brown and we very may well see it again in the next two coming seasons with KCP and AG. Those are two slots in the starting lineup that could be filled with Watson who is on his rookie contract for two more seasons after this one and the Nuggets have control of his contract after that as Watson would only become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2026 if the two sides weren’t able to work out an extension. Restricted free agency means even if he accepts an offer from another team, the Nuggets will have the right to match it.

If Denver truly wants to become a dynasty as Booth and the rest of the organization has stated, then developing younger players into starting level NBA players is a must. Guys like Braun and Watson eventually have to step into the roles of guys like Caldwell-Pope and Gordon when they inevitably get their big pay days. Getting Watson a taste of that now while Gordon heals is a great way to work towards him eventually becoming an every day starter. Denver may not have the luxury of waiting either. Watson’s rise from top high school prospect to under utilized raw college talent to G-League dominator to fringe NBA rotation player to a guy Malone counts on every night is striking. Perhaps no more so than for the simple fact that it’s happened while he was 18 to 20 years old. There is no young player still establishing himself in the NBA on Denver’s team right now with a higher ceiling than Peyton’s. His primary weakness is consistency which is perhaps the easiest weakness to address simply by giving a player more time on the court. Denver’s challenged him more and more each day and he continues to answer the bell. There’s no telling just how good he can be but it would be silly to rule out the possibility of Watson one day becoming a star in the NBA who racks up multiple defensive accolades while filling all the gaps on offense. That’s a future everyone can get on board with and the next stop on the journey to that future should be giving Watson the opportunity to shine while Gordon is out.