Paul Watson is up to his knees in ice. He’s just come off the floor in the most minutes he’s seen for the Raptors since signing his two-way deal mid-January, nearly four minutes of play to wrap Toronto’s bullying 127-81 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Watson used his closeout minutes decisively, zeroing in on Indiana’s Alize Johnson for a stuffing, full-hand swat of a block that had Johnson looking whiplashed and longingly over his shoulder as the ball bounced into the hands of Oshae Brissett, already turning to run it down the floor and flip it out to Matt Thomas, ready in the corner for an open three. Watson stayed dialed in, grabbing a rebound that first rolled around and off Stanley Johnson’s shoulders to take it solo down the floor. His stride extending around T.J. Leaf backing into the paint, Watson hovered mid-stride under the basket and hooked the ball up to Brissett, who caught it at speed and lifted for a dunk.
Not big minutes in the scheme of a game that started at a high clip and went on to lap the Pacers a few times over, but minutes that Watson, who has one foot on either side of the G League and NBA divide, was ready for. In the Raptors locker room postgame, most of the media crowded at the centre of the room waiting for Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it takes Watson a second to register my side-stepping the yellow janitor’s bucket of ice water his legs are resting in. He removes an earbud and smiles in the quiet, assured way I now recognize as signature to the steady, 6’6” guard.
“Being in the right spots. Not doing too much, just doing my role,” Watson answers quietly, when asked what he equated his decisive reads to. He shifts his legs slightly to lean forward, ice swallowing up both his knees, “I try to stick to it. Any chance I get to go out here and play on this stage with these guys, it’s cool. I try not to think too much, just go out there and play hard and play my game.”
There is no indication on his face that he is uncomfortable, or aware of the encroaching cold numbing his muscles. As far as teams go, the Raptors are as close to even keel as they come. A deceptive placidity that will lull opposing teams on the floor into bad decisions, mistaking defensive traps for offensive opportunities, only to be swallowed whole by a jettisoning undertow. When the Raptors wait, it is because they understand there is going to be a perfect time to be ready. Watson personifies this patience. Half because he’s had to—bouncing from the dry, pavement curling heat of the Las Vegas desert during Summer League to central Germany, to the New York-Connecticut state line, to Mississauga, to Atlanta, to Toronto—and half because by now, due to determination, belief, and living firmly in the present he knows that any moment could be the next one, the right one.
The Saturday afternoon the Maine Red Claws come to call in Mississauga is a loud one. It’s Norman Powell bobblehead day, with lineups starting outside the Paramount Fine Food Centre as early as 11am for a 2pm tip-off, and Celtics rookie (and recent honorary Dunk Contest adjunct) and two-way player, Tacko Fall, is warming up. Kids crowd the bleacher rails closest to court, screaming for Fall, and on the floor a hip-hop dance crew and children’s choir are simultaneously dress rehearsing. Watson, out with a toe injury, sits quietly in the Raptors 905 locker room as his teammates suit up around him.
“I feel like whichever locker room I’m in, I feel at home.” Watson says, errant shrieks from the arena echoing into the small and tidy locker room, “Guys are the same down here and the same up there.”
Referring to Mississauga and the 905’s home base at Paramount as “down” and Toronto, Scotiabank Arena or the Raptors organization as a whole as “up” is a kind of internal navigational shorthand Watson and his teammates share. Referentially, it hits on geography that places Mississauga as a home base but also encompasses a kind of hierarchal ladder and path that Watson and his 905 teammates have seen a few current Raptors’ players take. When asked what it feels like to have one foot in either organization Watson admits there were adjustments, but that having a role on two separate teams has been made easier by his relationships, “Obviously this season, this was a new group for me, I had to learn and grow relationships with each guy. A lot of those guys up there, I actually got to play with my rookie year coming out in Summer League… so I got to play with some of them in the past and have relationships with them. There’s no change, you know what I mean? Everybody gets along with everybody.”
Watson admitted that when it comes to the mental transition of shifting between teams, his larger role as a starter and leading scorer on 905 inverting to someone who benefits the Raptors by coming off the bench for closing minutes that allow Toronto’s starters to rest earlier in blowout or runaway games, both teams have made it easy for him.
“Everything kind of goes hand in hand,” he said. “We do a lot of similar things. [The teams] do a great job of communicating with each other what’s going on as far as my development. I don’t feel like it’s really that difficult.”
Nick Nurse, after Watson’s late-game performance against the Pacers, echoed the same when it came to players like him staying ready, “There’s a reason why those guys are here,” Nurse said, “They go out there.”
But a huge portion of that seamlessness comes from experience. Watson, like many G League players, has had a professional basketball career made up of try-outs, two-ways, multi-day contracts; short stints that he’s managed to stitch together to create a strong, successful whole. His path has by no means been linear, and with every step forward there’s been enough stress and uncertainty to set him back two, but it’s in choosing resolve, the familiarity of work, that has helped Watson create rhythm and a business-as-usual routine out of what, to most, would seem tenuous at best.
Watson had already played two seasons in the G League with the Westchester Knicks, and was considering trying another stint overseas (he had played one game with Germany’s BG Göttingen in Fall 2017 before being waived by the team) when he was selected to join the G League Elite Team and play in the G League International Challenge. The six-team tournament took place in Uruguay in September 2019 and was led by 905 head coach, Jama Mahlalela.
Mahlalela, who is himself unflagging in his positivity, more likely to be clapping through encouragement on the sidelines than melting down, had coached Watson previously as part of the Raptor’s 2017 Summer League team. That roster also included some of Watson’s current notable Raptors and 905 teammates of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Matt Thomas and Malcolm Miller, but Mahlalela noted growth in Watson’s game. His improved shooting arsenal included a honed 3-point shot and more than that, Watson had expanded his role on the floor when it came to quiet but essential contributions. When the current 905 season rolled around, Watson found himself on the roster. The team had traded away their 4th pick in the draft to secure him.
“Listen, he’s such a tremendous person. I think that’s what initially attracted him to our organization.” Mahlalela said when asked about Watson’s ability to handle the flow in his two-way thus far. “And I think he’s sort of been in the up and down of it. And it’s difficult.”
Mahlalela was eluding to the self-made path Watson had forged through his continual work and determination to improve. A path that saw him, barely settled with the 905, called up to the Atlanta Hawks on a 10-day contract. When the contract was up, Mahlalela made sure Watson boomeranged right back, into a two year, two-way deal with the Raptors.
“For him, being with us and then going to Atlanta [Hawks] and having ten days there, and sort of his mind starting to spin, and coming right back to the G League on the road and in a tough part of the schedule, to be back, play a few games with us, and then go to the Raptors—it’s been a wild ride for him.” Mahlalela admitted, “But I think, because of his character, he’s dealt with it very well.”
Watson’s character, if you hadn’t already guessed, radiates perseverance. On the floor he roams around with a deceptive length and knack for being in the exact right spot when his teammates need him, and where opposing players would prefer him the least. It’s not that he’s exceptionally fast or dominating, but when he moves he’s apparition-like, nowhere close and suddenly there, wide open and shooting a devastatingly neat three from the corner, or enshrouding guys for blocks that extinguish all hope, let alone easy buckets. In G League games, where pace is ratcheted right up and players, all trying to compete for next steps up the ladder to the NBA, looks from scouts, plus eye-snagging stats, games can get used as highlight reels. For the 905, Watson is a steadying anchor. Facilitating the tenants of the Raptors playing style—ball movement, communication, slowing it down—along with the 905 coaching staff that makes the Raptors developmental affiliate stand out in a chaotic crowd.
Another of the 905’s most offensively dangerous players is Watson’s closest friend on the team, Devin Robinson. In a bustling post-game locker room after a much needed 905 win, Robinson, who is naturally boisterous and chatty, switches to instantly focused when asked about his and Watson’s on-court rapport, “I just know where he’s going to be on the court at all times. I know he’s going to be in the corner when I drive, he’s going to be there wide open.” Robinson’s hands trace the air lightly as he talks, mapping out Watson’s moves, “I know if he drives, he’s going to look for me if he needs to flip it out for the bucket. We just play off each other.”
“When I’m not doing well in my own head, he’s the one that comes to me like, “Yo, come on. You’re fine. Play your game, stay focused, calm down, it’s not that serious.” It mellows me out. When he’s hot I’m like, “Bro, come on, you’ve come so far, it’s not the end of the world.” We keep our mental game balanced, and it translates on the court.”
When asked about what it meant to see his friend snag a two-way with the Raptors, a bittersweet achievement considering it’s every player on the roster’s end goal, Robinson was earnest, “I was happy for him. First you got the 10-day [with Atlanta], I saw my man cry like, he was like, “If you ever see me cry, it’s because I got called up. That’s all I really want, and to help my family.” I was like, “Okay!” So when I saw tears, I was happy for him. I gave him hug,” Robinson remembered. “He’s my roommate on the road, one of my best friends off the court, and just to see the journey he’s going on, it can only go up from here.”
While Watson comes off quiet, introverted, his influence on his teammates has been far-reaching. “He inspires me because me and him are total opposites on the spectrum,” Robinson said, “He’s more calm and mellow, level-headed, he’s been through a lot more than I have. And I’m more energetic, talkative, people person, so I feel like we balance each other out.” Robinson grins, “Sort of like yin and yang.”
The bond that Robinson and Watson have is, in a lot of ways, miraculous. It’s a support that is unselfish in an environment that could otherwise feel, given the odds, the grind, the limited opportunities and the repetition it takes to go after it again and again, contentious at best and outright hostile at worst. But the G League, or at least 905, is in its own way, a wonder of an environmental anomaly. Situations like Watson’s, that have come from years of hard work, are rare, and guys can’t know the outcome of a season and what it spells for their careers, but there is a vital, almost heartbreaking kind of tenuousness that bonds players, quickly. Players put together for short seasons have to rely on each other for support, on court and off, to learn the most they can and improve their games on the short runway they are given.
Robinson touched on it when talking about his relationship with Watson, and his teammates more widely, “Having that relationship, you learn things about different players. What makes them tick, what set them off, what calms them down. Once you learn that about your teammates it makes everything easier.” Communication, when everything counts so closely, couldn’t be any more vital.
Mahlalela, talking about Watson’s ability to stay fluid between assignments, shared the advice he gives his players. Much of it having to do with communication, some of it the invisible kind, “We talk a lot about just absorbing everything you can. Everything Nick [Nurse] is saying in a Raptors practice — absorbing. Everything you’re learning from [Raptors Assistant Coach] Jim Sann, and the development group there, learn it and absorb it. And when he’s with us, the exact same thing. And he’s very open to that, and very amenable to being a learner. And I think a two-way player needs to be a learner. They realize it’s a longer play for them and they’re completely fine with that.”
Watson acknowledged that dynamic of trust and communication, and how crucial, and special it is that the lines of communication between him and his Raptors teammates stay open, “When I’m up with the Raps I’m always, always asking questions. I’m always in Kyle’s ear, or Fred [VanVleet], or Pascal [Siakam], Norm [Powell]. I’m always asking questions.” He also touched on what that kind of communication has done in helping to develop his game, “What they feel like I should do that’s going to help me benefit the team, or help benefit my game, and find different ways on the floor to be effective, and take that and try to incorporate it down here. Because they’re up there for a reason, and they’re not going to steer me in the wrong direction.”
So much of games are speed determinate. With the G League, it’s a blurring pace. Players are a tangle on the floor, breaking away, crashing together, rolling through contact. To be able to pull off close cuts and plays with smooth, swinging movement, intrinsic trust is key. With the Raptors, it’s being able to take quick, clear reads concerning the pace of a game, intuitively, to slow things down before they get erratic or to give a push before energy flatlines. What Watson is seeing on the Raptors end, even what he isn’t playing through, is invaluable. He’s such a close study, such a learner as Mahlalela put it, that when he does hit the floor he barely needs a moment to adjust.
There’s no doubt that being on both sides takes a special, inherent knack for staying balanced. Tempering expectations while never quitting on hope. When asked what all steps in his career have taught him about patience, Watson let loose a rare, almost rueful smile, “Patience, that’s actually the perfect word.”
“I’m a very impatient person. Very.” He emphasized. “And I’ve learned [patience] over the course of these three years. Just continuing to focus on the day at hand, what do I need to get better at? Going from there and trusting that what I do is going to get me to where I want to be. This year, I was blessed enough to finally make that leap and be on an NBA roster.” And getting his first minutes in an NBA game, “It’s hard to put in words.” He smiles, hugely now, “It’s really surreal. It’s a blessing and it’s something you always remember. It makes you want to work that much harder to find more minutes out there and find a way to get better.”
When Watson talks in his grounded, tranquil way about his game, it is easy to let all doubts slip away. But his steadiness, like most G League or undrafted and overlooked players, is tied directly to his determination. The truest kind of courage with no guarantees, no renewing source of assurance save for yourself, your heart. When Watson walks me through what he works on to stay focused, after I have asked him a second, and then third time, his answer is the same: “Being patient, not getting too far ahead of myself, and worrying about what I can control”. Distilled, like the ice melting slow around his legs, it comes down to taking it one game at a time until this—business as usual work on hardwood, recovery, the quiet moments to sit in a media mobbed locker room—becomes the steady-state, with both feet planted.