Big in a backup role
Peyton Watson now making a huge impact for Denver Nuggets second unit
BY VINNY BENEDETTO email@example.com
DENVER • Michael Porter Jr. knows what it’s like to be in Peyton Watson’s position.
After missing the entirety of what should’ve been his rookie season, Porter came into his second professional year with plenty of potential, but the playing time wasn’t just handed to him with veterans Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant on the roster. He started eight of the 55 games he appeared in and averaged just 16.4 minutes per game back in the 2019-20 season.
Watson’s in a slightly different situation after spending much of his first season in the G League. Most of the meaningful minutes Watson played as a rookie came after the Nuggets had secured the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs late last regular season. Like Porter, Watson is a former one-and-done player who was one of the country’s top prep prospects. And his playing time hasn’t been consistent despite the obvious potential. Watson got benched for one of Denver’s first 17 games and averaged under 14 minutes per game heading into Sunday’s win against San Antonio. He was among the reserves who struggled in Friday’s loss in Houston, finishing with zero points, one rebound and one block to show for his six minutes of floor time. Porter knows what it will take for Watson to play more, as he did Sunday with more than 21 minutes of playing time.
“His whole thing is just trying to get the younger guys to earn their spots and realize that there are guys that could play in their position,” Porter said of Nuggets coach
Michael Malone. “It’s like nothing is given. You’ve got to earn it.”
With Aaron Gordon joining Jamal Murray on the sidelines with a minor injury, Malone started veteran Justin Holiday against the Spurs. The Nuggets coach cited the trust Holiday has earned in his short time in Denver.
“He does all the right things. You never have to worry about if he’s going to be in the right place offensively or defensively. I think you can put him in with the starting lineup, the bench unit, (and) you just trust him out there. He’s like a seamless fit with whatever group he’s in,” Malone said of the veteran.
“Nothing sexy out there but just real trustworthy.”
Watson’s game has a little more spice than the veteran wing, and that was on display Sunday. Watson closed out to the corner and swatted Malaki Branham’s 3-point shot into the Spurs bench early in the second quarter. Early in the fourth, he had an emphatic rejection when Devin Vassell went for a reverse layup. He also added a steal in the second quarter, deflecting an entry pass that started Denver’s fast break and ended with Christian Braun getting to the free throw line. Afterward, Malone awarded Watson the team’s chain given to the play
er who had the best defensive performance. That moment also came with a message.
“I told him in front of the team. I said ‘You deserve this tonight, and my challenge to you is can you bring the same energy and effort every night? I’m not asking about you making 3s. Can you just play with that same energy and effort every night?’” Malone said. “Because, when he does that, he’s a difference maker. We saw it in glimpses last year at the end of the season when he played, and you’ve seen it a few times this year.”
The 21-year-old missed both of his 3-point attempts Sunday, but he hit a floater over Victor Wembanyama and later beat San Antonio’s stud rookie off the dribble with some help from a Braun screen and finished with a two-handed dunk. He ended the game with four points, four rebounds and two assists to go with his three combined steals and blocks. That performance came while he dealt with an illness. He was still feeling the effects Monday, listed as probable prior Denver’s late game against the Clippers when he again came off the bench.
“I’m not saying he has not been playing hard, but you felt his impact tonight,” Malone said after Sunday’s game. “On the glass, blocking shots, there was a presence about him tonight, and when he has that, he is a difference maker. We need guys like that to come in and make a difference.”
The Gazette, Colorado Springs