Watson's NBA Journey More Unique Than Most Players

By John Denton
Oct. 10, 2015

HIDALGO, TX – In many ways, C.J. Watson’s professional basketball career – one highlighted by his circuitous route, some moments of doubt and his survivor spirit – will come full circle on Sunday in, of all places, this tiny town along the Texas/Mexico border.

It was in the out-the-way town of Hidalgo, Texas, where Watson started playing in the NBA’s Development League and laid the groundwork for a career that has spanned nine years and five NBA teams. Watson, now 31 and a valuable reserve guard for the Orlando Magic, admitted that just walking into arena in Hidalgo will be a downright surreal feeling.

``It’s kind of weird, but it’s also destiny, I guess,’’ said Watson, whose Magic (1-2) face the Houston Rockets (1-1) in a neutral site game at State Farm Arena. ``I haven’t been there in like 10 years. There are definitely memories there, and maybe there are still some people who work there, so we’ll see how it goes.’’

Things went well enough in Hidalgo for Watson that he only played for the Rio Grande Vipers a month before being called up to the NBA by the Golden State Warriors. Watson, a 6-foot-1 combo guard originally from Las Vegas, went undrafted in 2006 following a stellar career at the University of Tennessee, forcing him to play for a year in Italy and Greece. There were plenty of doubts along the way, and Watson admitted that he thought about giving up basketball on a couple of occasions.

But his big break came in 2007 in Hidalgo where he averaged 26.4 points, 5.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals a game. That caught the eye of the Golden State Warriors, who signed Watson to a couple of 10-day contracts and eventually locked him up for the rest of the 2007-08 NBA season.

Former Magic GM Otis Smith twice tried to acquire Watson to play in Orlando, but the Warriors matched on a contract offer and rebuffed a potential trade to keep the point guard in Northern California. Watson admitted looking on longingly in 2009 when the Magic reached the NBA Finals, knowing that he could have been a part of that Orlando team.

Watson, who has since played for the Bulls, Nets and Pacers, was delighted on July 1 when his agent called and told him that the Magic were interested in signing for him. New Magic coach Scott Skiles and some of his assistant coaches highly recommended the mild-mannered guard with the solid jump shot.

``We just felt like his ability to shoot the three and play behind (starting point guard) Elfrid (Payton) would be good for us because he’s always been a solid-heady player,’’ Skiles said of Watson, who has averaged 7.8 points while shooting 38.3 percent from 3-point range in his NBA career. ``A couple of our coaches – Adrian Griffin has had him before and Mario Ellie has been around him and they swore by the kind of person that he was. We were able to go and get him and we’re glad to have him.’’

Magic forward Tobias Harris is also glad to be a teammate of Watson, whom Harris has known since he enrolled at the University of Tennessee as Watson was leaving the Vols and beginning his pro career. Harris always looked up to Watson because the quality of his character, but he also respects the point guard because of the way he’s fought to keep his basketball dreams alive.

``He’s a Tennessee guy also, so you’ve got to cheer for him,’’ Harris said with a chuckle. ``When I was coming into Tennessee as a freshman, (Watson) had just signed a $10 million, three-year deal with the Bulls and everybody around there was excited hearing his story and how he made it. We communicated a lot back then and I’ve always admired his work ethic, his game and his ability as a leader. His professionalism is special.’’

Skiles said he can envision scenarios where Watson is closing games for the Magic because he can play at point guard and shooting guard and he is unafraid to take big 3-point shots late in games. Watson said some of that toughness comes from having to claw through basketball’s minor leagues in Italy, Greece and even Hidalgo to reach the dream of playing in the NBA.

``I thought about quitting once or twice when I was overseas because playing overseas is so different,’’ Watson admitted. ``All of that gave me a lot more focus, a lot more determination and a lot more drive just to make it to the NBA. ``A lot of people said I’d never make it, and even when I got close there were a lot of things I needed to work on. But I just tried to get better every summer and it’s helped me get to where I am now.’’

On Sunday, where Watson will be is Hidalgo, Texas – full circle from the place where he made his own breaks through hustle and hard work to get to the NBA.