Peyton Watson's in a dream-come-true position.
At just 21 years old, he's got a real opportunity to play a significant amount of meaningful basketball next season... for the defending NBA champions.
Most players his age would get mothballed on a roster as talented as Denver's. Not Peyton. The organization is high on his ability to contribute as early as next season.
"[The Nuggets] believe in me to hoop. They brought me here for a reason. They've developed me. I've learned. I've waited my turn," Watson told Nuggets.com. "So now, it's just about taking on the responsibility and being a big part of our team."
Watson has prepared accordingly with a larger share of responsibility on the table. He's worked to add weight to his 6'8, 200-pound frame to guard a wider variety of players at the wing position. The UCLA product has studied the mental side of the game, as well, so that he can seamlessly fit in with an established core that functions together almost telepathically.
"It's been a huge summer for me," Watson told Nuggets.com. "Just getting stronger, picking up weight, getting ready for year two, and being a big impact for the team this year. And just really learning the game as much as I can mentally, talking to my coaches as much as I can, and just learning tricks that are gonna help me when it comes time to play."
Watson's sophomore year is very quietly one of the most intriguing storylines this upcoming Denver Nuggets season. He's a rarity on a championship roster; a young player with an undeniably high ceiling that oozes star potential. He's the perfect bridge player if all goes well, and fostering his development could undeniably stretch Denver's window as a contender.
High-upside prospects are hard to come across in any setting, much less the one the Nuggets have been in the last couple of seasons. The draft system functionally penalizes teams for historical success, and the NBA's best regular-season performers are typically forced to select at the bottom of the first round. Denver's most recent lottery pick occurred way back in 2018 when the team grabbed Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th overall pick. Before that, it was Jamal Murray picked 7th in 2016.
Watson was drafted and then traded to the Nuggets with the 30th-overall selection of the 2022 NBA draft. The very last pick of the first round. He showed undeniable flashes at UCLA as a freshman but barely played, averaging just 12.7 minutes as a Bruin in his one-and-done season.
But Denver recognized something in him. Something more than just flashes. More than just unrecognized potential. He spent most of his rookie season in the G League with the Grand Rapids Gold and impressed the Nuggets with the improvements he made to his game and the way he built out his body.
"All the reports we got from Grand Rapids. All the reports I get from our player development coaches. Our strength coach, Felipe, [and] our training staff have all marked at different times how much better Peyton's gotten this year," said head coach Michael Malone back in April. "Well, what does that mean? He's gotten better as a player. He's gotten stronger. He's becoming more mature, understanding of what it means to be a pro every single day."
Watson got the opportunity to showcase those improvements at the tail-end of the 2022-23 regular season. He played at least 17 minutes in each of Denver's final six games and performed well by averaging 7.5 points, 44.4 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.7 blocks in 22.4 minutes per game. His keystone rookie performance came against the Golden State Warriors when Watson landed three primetime blocks against two-time MVP, Stephen Curry.
Though he didn't play much in the postseason—nothing out of the norm for a rookie drafted late in the first round—Watson carried that rhythm over to Summer League in July. He utilized the Las Vegas tournament to experiment a bit with his game by handling the ball more, unfurling a pull-up jumper, and dictating the flow of the offense with increased regularity.
"Oh, it was a great experience," Watson said. "It brought back a lot of memories just from my first year in Summer League. But at the same time, it was a whole different feeling just because I felt so seasoned and so comfortable. The game just came to me so naturally and easily. And I just feel like that one year under my belt in, obviously, being a part of a championship team just really helped me, and it gave me all the confidence in the world to go out there and execute."
Watson jumps off the page when you watch him. Literally. Athleticism transcends the rest of his game. Peyton doesn't just run the floor in transition; he leaps and bounds across it like an Olympic triple jumper. He eclipses the entirety of the basket when he elevates for help-side blocks, spiking the ball into the first row like it's a game of beach volleyball. He's got impressive handles to boot, freezing opponents with a lethal hesitation dribble, allowing him to get to his spots at will.
But the thing that stands out the most with Peyton has nothing to do with his skills on the hardwood. It's his self-belief that makes him such an enticing young player. It comes out naturally when he speaks about himself. How fearless he is at such a young age. The way he feels, no, better yet, the way he knows he belongs. He just exudes confidence.
"I don't back down from anybody. I'm not scared of anybody," Watson told Nuggets.com. "Every time I go out on the floor, I'm going out there to showcase what I can do and help the team win."
He's been picking the brains of the greats to continue his ascension into becoming a winning player. Watson mentioned he spoke with Russell Westbrook this summer and received the best piece of advice he's gotten since winning the championship. Like Peyton, Westbrook is a notoriously competitive player, now entering his 16th NBA season because of that unbreakable killer instinct.
"We were out in Puerto Rico together, and he told me, 'It's a long race, but you've got a short window of time to go your hardest and do everything you can.' And that really spoke to me because it's the truth," said Watson. "A lot of people feel like this game gives to you longer than what it does. It's a very small window, so you've got to take it seriously and do as much as you can, while you can."
Watson's in a pretty unique position as a young player. He's seen an NBA season from start to finish. He's held with his own two hands the payout of building the right habits, the Larry O'Brien trophy. Peyton's learned what it takes to come away as an NBA champion. He's soaked up countless tidbits of information from a roster that went 16-4 in a postseason.
"I've seen what it takes to win. I know what it takes to win a championship. Frankly, that was my first year, so that's what I'm used to. And I want to make that a common theme around here. Going and continuing every year and just playing the best basketball we can," said Watson, before concluding with, "I'd love to bring the city of Denver another championship."