Denver's ascendant sophomore, Peyton Watson, commands your attention

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Peyton Watson is quickly becoming one of the most fascinating development stories in the NBA.

Watson's averaging 9.6 points on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range since December 1st. He's cemented himself as an integral member of the defending champions' regular season rotation.

If this level of productivity remains consistent, he could fortify Denver's playoff rotation this season as a wing stopper who fills the gaps offensively.

Long-term, however, there's a chance that Watson's development could be the difference in turning this one-time champion into a dynasty.

"Let's be honest. Peyton Watson is a huge part of our future," said head coach Michael Malone.

Not long ago, the San Antonio Spurs drafted a defensive specialist from San Diego State with the 15th pick in the 2011 draft. That player, Kawhi Leonard, helped San Antonio's star trio—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili—capitalize on their twilight years and win a fifth championship in 2014. Leonard won Finals MVP that year for his defensive work against LeBron James.

Now, let's be clear about one thing. This is not to say Peyton Watson is going to become Kawhi Leonard. That's ridiculous. Kawhi is a top-30 player ever and a once-in-a-generation development story. He went from a complete non-factor on offense to one of the most lethal three-level scorers in league history.

What Watson CAN do that's similar to Kawhi is this: he can extend Denver's window.

The dynastic Golden State Warriors searched for this type of "bridge player" for years and years after Kevin Durant left the franchise in 2019. They never found him. Currently, they're in 12th place in the Western Conference standings. The closest they came was Jordan Poole, who had some huge moments during Golden State's most recent championship run in 2022. Poole is now a Washington Wizard. Things didn't work out.

Watson's ascendance was anything but guaranteed. He was drafted with the very last pick of the 2022 first round. Moreover, he averaged the fewest points per game in college (3.3) of any player ever selected with the first 30 picks of an NBA draft. Still, Nuggets general manager, Calvin Booth, called it an "easy pick." In fact, he wanted to trade up for Watson.

Watson's sure justified his general manager's gumption. His rate of improvement in his sophomore season has been dramatic (though, really, this is Peyton's rookie year given that he played just 186 total minutes in 2022-23). He seems to improve every single game.

"Last year at the end of the season, he showed the potential. This year, obviously, we made a full commitment to playing him," said Malone. "I think Peyton's learning curve and growth are just at a rapid rate right now. Initially, Peyton was a defender, and now you're getting Peyton as a complete basketball player."

"I'm just getting more comfortable and more comfortable by the game, honestly," Watson said previously. "I'm finding my role and finding my niche on this team."

Spacing things out a little, you can almost view his season in segments. First, it was his off-ball defense that stood out. Then, his on-ball defense began to perk up in early December. His three-pointer started stabilizing before the new year, and just recently, he's showcased increased poise as a rim-finisher and transition threat.

This type of rapid improvement is rare. You don't see guys get this much better at this many things in two month's time.

So, what changed for Watson? How did so many of his skills improve at once? Is his recent production a by-product of what's going on behind the scenes? Has he made changes to his game? Or has something else been altered in his routine?

His teammates argue that it's none of the above. Rather, the biggest thing that's changed for Watson is opportunity.

"I think it's less about the skill, just more about the confidence," said Jamal Murray. "I think he's just playing confident. Finding where he can score. Finding where he can make an impact on the game."

The Nuggets coaching staff deserves credit for how they've developed the 21-year-old thus far. They've been patient with the California native, allowing him to play through his mistakes. It hasn't always been roses and daisies. Watson struggled in mid-November and received two DNPs in a 7-game span.

"The biggest lesson that you can learn is being in game situations and failing and saying, ‘You know what, I can put myself in that position next time,'" Malone said about his philosophy with young players like Peyton.

But Watson's time was far from done. His season wasn't over. The coaching staff gave him a second chance to prove himself, and he did. He hasn't looked back.

"My biggest thing is to never make the same mistake twice," Watson said.

"Confidence is the greatest gift I can give them," said Malone. "Staying with them and not just pulling the plug... it's a long year, and you've got to live with some of those growing pains that you're going to see with young players."

Things have continued to climb for Peyton, so much so that he earned his first-ever start on December 28th when Aaron Gordon was sidelined. It meant a lot to Watson. It showed just how committed the franchise is to him—both in the short term and long term.

"Honestly, just for (Malone) to trust me at 21 years old to come out and start for the reigning champs. I mean, that's big time, and it does a lot for my confidence. But it also puts confidence in him that I can go out there and I'm ready to perform," said Watson after the win. "I couldn't thank him enough for the confidence that he's put in me. It’s done a lot for my game, and hopefully, I can return that and do a lot for the team and him."

Watson first showed signs of promise at the end of last season. His keystone performance came against the Golden State Warriors in April when Watson blocked Stephen Curry three separate times. Immediately, Watson projected as a terrifying rim protector at the wing position. A game-changing help-side defender.

His shot-swatting expertise remains superb. Peyton's 33.3 percent block percentage ranks within the top four at his position, and opponents are shooting just 54.8 percent when directly challenging Watson at the rim. That leads the NBA among all wings.

This season, it's the rest of his defensive skillset that's starting to catch up. He's quickly become one of Denver's best one-on-one defenders, and his rebounding average has gone up every single month.

"Defensively, I don't ever feel lost out there. I always feel like I know what's going on. I know the other team’s play calls, and I just kind of get the motion of the game. I know when to turn it up defensively, and I also know when I have to play back on the help side and help rebound, as well," said Watson. "Everything's slowing down on both ends for me."

His on-ball defense took a noticeable step in early December, beginning with a strong showing against one of his mentors, Kevin Durant. The 21-year-old frustrated Durant into 1-of-9 shooting in Denver's 119-111 victory. That kickstarted a strong stretch for him. Watson held one of the fastest guards in the league, De'Aaron Fox, to 0-of-3 shooting the very next night. Then, he forced Paul George and Kawhi Leonard into a combined 1-for-6 outing.

Obviously, that's a wide variety of players, both positionally and skill-wise. There's very little overlap between any of them... besides a bunch of All-Star selections. Watson's 7-foot wingspan, supreme athleticism, and ability to change directions on a whim allowed him to hang with each of these superstars. It earned him praise in the fourth edition of Film Friday.

"Nobody has to tell me that I have to go out there and guard those best guys," said Watson. "I feel like I take the challenge every night, and I want to guard the best player. That's just who I am."

Watson has always possessed the necessary fearlessness to guard the league's best players, but it's his work behind the scenes that has helped him actualize that hunger. Adding size and muscle to his frame this summer was the final piece in the puzzle, and now, he's able to hang with guys like Leonard who welcome the physicality of the game.

"I've gotten a lot stronger. I've been in the weight room a lot, and that's helped me be more solid, keep my balance, and keep my feet under me on defense," said Watson. "It's just always been something that's in me—being a good on-ball defender. I got a lot of pride on that end of the ball, and I never want anybody to score on me."

Players are shooting just 43.6 percent when guarded by Watson. That's a full 3.6 percent worse than their normal shooting averages, and it places him alongside other stoppers like New Orleans' Herbert Jones and his teammate, Aaron Gordon.

As a rookie, Watson struggled with discipline on the defensive end. He was quite jumpy, at times, and would get airborne far too easily against pump-fakes.

This year, he's been much better about trusting his length to do the hard work.

DeMar DeRozan is one of the craftiest players in the NBA, a true master of the pump-fake. He's perennially ranked atop the leaderboard in post-up efficiency and from the midrange because of his herky-jerky game.

Watson held DeRozan to just 1-of-5 shooting on December 12th. He was diligent about staying down on the six-time All-Star's pump-fakes and defended without fouling.

"It's just a constant mental reminder for me to stay down, stay down, stay down," said Watson about guarding a player like DeRozan. "Just putting myself in the best position to where I'm not off-balance, to where I need to go flying to recover to block a shot. I feel like a lot of times when you're out of position, it's easier for the defense to trick you. So, just putting myself in the best position to stay in front of guys and just keep my hand up."

At the same time that Watson's defense was making headlines, his offense started to perk up. Denver has consistently tinkered with playing Watson in the dunker spots in the mold of Aaron Gordon, but a sudden burst in three-point accuracy pushed him outward to the corners. Watson's canned 43.5 percent of his looks from a distance since December 14. That's the third-best three-point percentage on Denver's roster in that time span behind only Nikola Jokić and the recently resurgent Gordon.

He's been absolutely lethal from the corners. Watson's up to 38 percent on corner threes this season, and he's made a scalding 44 percent of them since December 1st. Many times, those looks come in the flow of the offense. Denver's lethal two-man game between Jokić and Murray forces help rotations, leaving Watson open in the corners. Peyton's constant work on his three-pointer has allowed him to make opponents pay for wagering against his shot-making prowess.

"I've really just taken my work to another level," said Watson about his jump shot. "There are times when even our coaches will tell me, ‘Get your rest. You don't have to come in and shoot this morning. No shots if you don't want to.’ And I'll be like, ‘Nah, let's go. Let's get in the gym.’ Because if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

That work began last year with Nuggets shooting coach, Mike Penberthy. The two of them made slight adjustments to Watson's mechanics, and now, we're starting to see the payout. Peyton's had a full season to get acclimated to his reformed jump shot. He's even starting to hit shots on the move.

"I started with it last year working with my shooting coach here, Mike Penberthy. We just made some small adjustments to my base and then a little bit on my release, as well," Watson said. "But honestly, the one thing that I think has changed more than anything is just my confidence in that shot from the reps I put in."

His finest performance as a shooter came against the Grizzlies in late December, his first-ever start. Memphis had Peyton's defender sag into the painted area to clog up Denver's offense throughout the night, leaving him wide-open in the corners. It wasn't necessarily a shock. Watson's still a relative unknown to the rest of the NBA. He hasn't yet established a pedigree as a dangerous outside shooter. That will come.

Watson ended up nailing a career-high 4 three-pointers in the Grizzlies' grill. What was more impressive was his number of attempts, 10, also a career-high. Watson wasn't afraid to hoist despite the defense daring him to shoot. That, more than anything, was the most encouraging part of the night. It spoke to his fearlessness. You need gutsy players in the playoff crucible.

"I loved it. It made my job easy," said Watson. "I knew I was gonna be open. I knew they were sagging off me, so I took it as disrespect, and I shot every one. Confidently."

Shooting the three-ball with consistency has bled confidence into the rest of his game. He's shooting a very healthy 66 percent within 4 feet of the basket, good for the 59th percentile. He appears much more poised when attacking in transition, slowing down when needed instead of screeching out of control toward the rim.

From there, he'll flaunt a variety of glitzy finishing moves. A confident euro-step. The ability to go up and under. He'll gather low if a defender tries to swipe away a steal and scoop home the layup. He's excellent about going right at the big man if he's in front of him. There's that fearlessness again. His blazing speed is a major weapon. In fact, Watson's so fast that he's at risk of running off the edges of this webpage if he isn't careful.

He's got other things in his offensive arsenal. A silky pull-up jumper from 10-to-12 feet. A pretty floater. It's all about the right time and place for these shots, and Watson's been astutely selective with them. They've helped him shoot 50 percent in the short midrange, a 78th percentile number.

“I'm seeing things right in front of my face and things are slowing down. I'm making the right reads. I feel like when I have the ball, I'm doing a good job of attacking, finding guys open, and also finishing," said Watson. "Everything's just slowing down, and everything is just becoming more and more familiar."

The speed of the game slowing down for Peyton is important. It speaks to the fact that he's playing with more control and less angst. He's channeling his carbonated energy better.

“I think he's really young and he plays with just so much energy, so many emotions. And sometimes, I think he just needs to calm down a little bit if that makes sense. And then, I think when he does something good, he figures out, oh, this is a good thing. This is what we're supposed to do," said Nikola Jokić. "It's a good thing, I'm not saying (his energy) is a bad thing.”

Watson's learned a lot from Jokić. He's picked his brain since first landing in Denver, watching his every move. Just recently, the two of them did a commercial together. In it, Nikola shared his wisdom about hotel pool seating with the 21-year-old. It was symbolic, in a way, showcasing the bond the two of them have formed in two seasons together. The student learning from the teacher.

"I've been watching everything he does since the first day I arrived here," explained Watson. "How early he gets here, when he leaves, how seriously he takes his treatment, how he treats everybody, and what type of leader he is, verbally and non-verbally. I just want to pick up as much as I can because I'm blessed to be able to play with one of the best players ever to touch a basketball."

Beyond the athleticism, the speed, and the work he puts into his craft, the biggest thing that separates Peyton Watson is his mentality. He wants to be great. He's got wisdom beyond his years and a maturity that has allowed him to contribute to championship basketball barely above the legal drinking age. You can feel it in his interviews. The way he speaks. What he says. How he says it. Watson has unteachable confidence, and he knows how to channel it. He's poised.

“I've always been super competitive. Have that mentality to go out and kill when you're on their court. No friends, no funny business. Business-like mentality," Watson said on Sunday.

Watson has lofty goals for himself. He's going to do whatever it takes to get there. That's what distinguishes him from most players his age. His determination. His willingness to sacrifice. He has a clear picture of how he wants his career to pan out, but he knows it's a step-by-step process to get there. And he isn't interested in skipping any of them on the journey.

“Just a complete all-around player," Watson said. "I want to see myself as one of the best Swiss Army Knives this league has to offer. I want to be able to do everything from defend, facilitate, and score. I think that is going to be really valuable down the line, and it's also something that I want to do. I want to be the best I can be on every end of the floor and just really get the most out of my talent that I can. I want to be somebody who looks back at this game and has no regrets. So, I'm gonna do the work.”

He's come a long way in a very short amount of time, and this is just the beginning. Denver will need his services in the next few months as they look to repeat as champions. Farther down the line, he could be a key piece in extending Denver's dynastic window.

"The kid’s got so much potential, and I think he has so much room for continued growth," said Malone. "That makes it really exciting to see where Peyton was a year ago, where he is now, and then to look into the future and see where he's going to be."