For Paul Watson, this chance with Hawks is next step

ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Paul Watson remembers the first time he dunked a basketball. As he caught an alley oop in his eighth grade gym class and flushed it through the basket, it became clear that he wasn’t an ordinary ballplayer. Even after his two feet landed firmly on the hardwood, he couldn’t explain what he’d just accomplished.

“Everyone was kind of in awe and so was I,” said Watson, who was 5-foot-10 at the time. “We didn’t really know exactly what happened.”

Watson has come a long way since that middle school slam, but dunking has always been a special part of his relationship with basketball. In his senior season at Fresno State, Watson participated in the College Slam Dunk Contest, ranking among the top 10 collegiate dunkers in the country.

However, Watson’s game developed far past his raw athletic ability. After signing a 10-day contract with the Hawks on Jan. 6, Watson earned his first chance at the professional level, becoming the 11th G League player to sign an NBA contract this season.

With a quick turnaround, Watson traveled to Atlanta the same day to join the team for his first glimpse at his new home crowd in a game against the Denver Nuggets.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Watson said. “It’s definitely a blessing, and I’m grateful for this opportunity that they’ve given me. I’m just willing to come here and work hard to figure out a way to stick.”

Watson got a chance to prove himself in his first NBA game, Jan. 8 against the Houston Rockets. The combo forward played four minutes, attempting one field goal and grabbing a single rebound.

“He’s a really good shooter, and he’s a quiet guy that fits in well with our group,” coach Lloyd Pierce said. “He’s a good worker, a good shooter, and I think the nerves of being at the NBA for the first time is always something you have to expect.”

Watson followed his debut with a much longer stint against the Brooklyn Nets five days later. He played 13 minutes and struggled from the field, but dished out three assists, in addition to picking up a steal and a rebound. The guard has appeared in just the two games headed into Tuesday’s game against the Suns.

“Obviously my shot wasn’t falling,” Watson said. “But I feel like I impacted the game in other ways. (I) made plays for guys, got guys involved, played hard on defense, and crashed the glass.”

For Watson, the playing time during the early part of his Hawks’ stint isn’t the only goal. More important, Watson focused on learning from experienced players, aiming to learn the key to “sticking” in the NBA.

Vince Carter, a four-decade veteran that knows a thing or two about the league, was the first wisdom-giver that the rookie sought out. Watson carved out time before his first professional game against the Nuggets to ask Carter for advice.

“I came to (Vince) before the first game, and he said, at the end of the day, to have fun,” Watson said, “(He told me) to play hard every possession and when you get your opportunity to have fun doing it.”

Watson has had plenty of fun as of late, playing for the Raptors 905, the G League Toronto Raptors affiliate. As a member of the Mississauga, Ontario club, Watson averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, shooting 46.7 percent from deep in the team’s first 13 games this season.

Over the previous two years, Watson appeared in 95 games for the Westchester Knicks, averaging only 8.2 points per game and shooting 34.5 percent from beyond the arc in 2018. Watson attributed his budding success to Raptors 905 coach Jama Mahlalela’s system and their relationship that began in Uruguay at the 2019 NBA G League International Challenge.

“I felt like I had more freedom to go out there and play my game,” Watson said. “Coach Jama (Mahlalela) has helped me out a lot, and he’s believed in me since the day that I met him.”

Watson’s contract is set to expire Thursday, leaving little time for the new professional to make an impact. After Watson’s contract is up, the Hawks can sign him to a second 10-day contract or release him.

But Watson isn’t focused on the next step. Instead, he’s locked in to every moment, every practice, and every piece of advice that’s been given. Although the early minutes he’s played haven’t been jaw-dropping, Watson’s career is starting to take flight.

“I think that second 10-day, or that second go-around, whether it’s with us or someone else, he’ll feel (the nerves) part of it gone,” Pierce said. “He’ll feel his voice come out and his energy and aggression come out and kind of settle in to start paving his way into an NBA role.”