February 14, 2008

After originally signing a 10-day conract with the Warriors last month, Watson is now under contract for the remainder of the season. (photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty)
Practice is over. Head Coach Don Nelson has already spoken to the media and walked out of the practice facility’s back door. There are still several players spread out across the spacious gym. Some guys are getting individual attention from Warriors assistant coaches, and others are working on their free throws.

But at every break in the action, their attention turns to the fierce competition going on at the practice facility’s Northeastern basket. It’s here where Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis, Marco Belinelli and C.J. Watson are engaged in a series of one-on-one battles.

It’s been four days since the team has seen any game action, and the competitive juices are flowing in full force. Each foul call is being debated and each made basket seemingly comes with the defender pointing out a travel or some other infraction.

As aggression is spilling over the court, a quiet storm is also brewing. Still adjusting to his new surroundings, Watson is taking it all in. The former D-Leaguer is taking his bumps and bruises and trying to show his new teammates and anybody else who’s watching that he does indeed deserve to be a part of this team. He’s debating some calls, but only for the sake of debating. He knows he won’t win these arguments – even if the facts are on his side – because, well, he’s a rookie.

“We’re always competitive and always want to get better,” Watson said of the heated exchanges during the post-practice exhibition. “We’re just trying to get the best out of our teammates, which will help us out as a team.”

Spoken like a true veteran. Barely a month removed from the D-League, Watson has the media game down.

Getting to Know C.J. Watson
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
College: Univ. of Tennessee
Nickname: Quiet Storm
Favorite Movie: American Gangster
Favorite TV Shows: Prison Break, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deal or No Deal
Currently Reading: "Reposition Yourself" by T.D. Jakes
Currently Listening To: Jay Z, Lil' Wayne, Jaheim
Random Fact: Brandan Wright's grandfather and C.J.'s father grew up in the same neighborhood in North Nashville.
Random Fact No. 2: C.J. is the sixth Nevada native in the history of the NBA.
Since signing with the Warriors on January 8, the 23-year-old point guard has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about life in the NBA, but he’d be the first to tell you that his education is far from complete.

“I’m definitely transitioning, slowly but surely. I’m just trying to get more comfortable on the court and off the court as well.”

As expected for a player who opened the season with the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Watson’s on-the-court adjustments have taken some time. Like any player who joins a team mid-season, Watson needs to learn all of the team’s offensive and defensive sets, not to mention the new terminology that comes with those sets. In addition, he now finds himself playing with guys who for the most part he had only seen play on television.

But perhaps the biggest basketball adjustment has been the reduction in playing time. Watson was considered The Guy in Rio Grande Valley. He ranked third in the D-League in scoring at the time of his callup with 26.4 points per game and was named an All-Star (but won’t be participating in the game due to his active role with the Warriors). But now, Watson finds himself playing sparse minutes in Coach Nelson’s short rotation. He’s sat out three of the last four games, but he’s not complaining in the least. Like the over-the-top aggression from that recent day of practice, Watson is taking his reduced role in stride because he knows this is all part of the learning process.

“It’s difficult, but really you just have to find your role on the team. If the team needs me to score, then I’ll go out and score. But here they just need me to play good, solid defense and make the open shots when I have them and control the team while I’m in there.”

The Warriors have gone 12-5 since Watson signed with the club. (photo: Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty)
Watson’s path to the Warriors is similar to that of Kelenna Azubuike, a former D-Leaguer who signed with the club mid-season last year. If anybody on the Warriors would know what Watson is experiencing, it’d be Azubuike.

“It can be a struggle if you let it be, but he’s fit in nicely,” Azubuike said. “You have to have the same attitude and confidence when you’re out there that you did in the D-League and he’s adjusted well.”

Watson is still getting accustomed to his new environment, but he’s not doing so on his own. Assistant Coach Stephen Silas has given the rookie out of Tennessee multiple crash courses on the Warriors free-flowing system and teammates like Azubuike have also been there to help the young guard along the way.

“I just told him that you have to be ready,” Azubuike said. “You never know how many minutes you’re going to get on a given night. Somebody could get hurt and you could come in and play a lot, which is what happened when I came in.”

Azubuike’s advice hasn’t been ignored. Before the ink even dried on his first 10-day contract with the team, Watson scored 11 points in 30 minutes as he donned a Warriors uniform for the first time ever on Jan. 9 in Portland. Ten days later, Watson scored a season-high 13 points in a win over Milwaukee.

At the same time he’s finding his way in the gym, he’s also trying to find his way in a new city. Many people in all walks of life have moved to a new place for a new job, but Watson’s situation is unique to professional athletes. He didn’t have an orientation or some time to get settled in before starting work. Rather, his first day on the job saw him perform on the top of his game in front of 20,000 fans.

Like many NBA players, Watson’s professional responsibilities have taken precedent over his personal matters. Despite the demands of his new job and the stress of establishing a new life in the Bay Area, Watson hasn’t let it overwhelm him.

Watson has averaged 15.3 points and 5.2 assists per 48 minutes in his 12 games with the Warriors. (photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty)
“He’s a pretty focused kid,” said Cathy Watson, C.J.’s mother. “He’s responsible and knows his part. Not much has changed in him at all. He’s still pretty much C.J.”

More than a month into his NBA career, Watson still lives in a hotel near the team’s practice facility in Downtown Oakland. And for the first few weeks he didn’t have a car, so he had to rely on teammates to drive him to and from games.

Those carpool conversations and bus rides when on the road have proved to be quite valuable for Watson. Not only did his teammates show him around and tell him where to eat and where not to eat, but they also reminded him of some important details that could easily be lost in the shuffle of having one’s life turned upside down.

“They just told me to be the first one on the bus, the first one at practice, just the little things to let them know you’re serious and that you want to stay here,” Watson said. “When you’re on the 10-day (contract) and you know your last day is coming, you don’t want to mess up or do anything that gets you sent back to the D-League. You just try to stay up, be positive and do everything perfect.”

Now that he’s signed for the remainder of the season, Watson no longer has to worry about being perfect. Rather, he just has to follow Azubuike’s advice and be ready at all times.

More than an hour after practice officially ended, the curtain finally closes on the one-on-one match-ups, and a relative calm takes over the practice facility. The players depart for the lockerroom, and Watson has completed Day No. 29 of his NBA career.