Work in Sports
A Winning Combination
NCAA title an elementary goal for UCLA's Watson
We couldn't wait until Midnight Madness to catch up with college basketball's premier players, so we decided to track them down during summer break. Check back here each week to find out whether your favorite hoopster has been bulking up, barbecuing or perfecting his turnaround J.
By Carl Bialik,
It was the Bruins' lack of chemistry that led to their 13-11 start last season, Watson says. After losing at Arizona State and at Arizona by a combined 44 points in consecutive games February 17-19, the Bruins appeared NIT-bound at best. But a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season earned UCLA the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region, and the Bruins reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Iowa State, 80-56. "We had to find chemistry throughout the season," Watson says. "We should have tried to find it before the season even started."
Watson, who served as team captain last season and will do so again this year, doesn't want to wait this time. All of UCLA's returning players are on campus for the second semester of summer school. And since the fall term and official practices don't start until September 25 --only a month and a half before the season opener against Kansas at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York on November 9 -- Watson plans to act as a surrogate coach. He is not the only leader on the team; UCLA's roster includes four seniors and five juniors. "It's the first time since I've been here that we've had so many upperclassmen," Watson says. "It's going to be a great opportunity for us to take advantage of."
Two would-be juniors, forwards JaRon Rush and Jerome Moiso, won't be back, however, and they were two of the Bruins' best players. Both declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft. Moiso was taken by the Boston Celtics with the 11th pick, while Rush was not drafted (he played for the Celtics at the Shaw's Pro Summer League in Boston, shooting 2 for 18 in 51 minutes of action. His status with the team is up in the air). Watson says that Rush's return last March from a 24-game suspension helped the Bruins' chemistry. But it also helped them in more tangible ways: Rush averaged 12.5 points on 56% shooting and 6.2 rebounds upon his return.
With Watson's laser focus aimed toward seeing his fellow Bruins improve and come together as a team, it is easy to lose sight of his own importance on the court. Watson almost lost his own sight after taking an elbow to the eye in the Bruins' second-round NCAA Tournament win over Maryland, and two days later he underwent laser surgery to repair a hole in his left retina. UCLA faced Iowa State three days later. "I couldn't see, and the doctors were telling me that if I get hit the wrong way, my retina could tear off," Watson says. "My season should have been done. But I wanted to play. I never missed a game, and I didn't want to miss one now." Watson had started all 96 games of his UCLA career. Despite the pain, he continued the streak against the Cyclones, playing 33 minutes in the loss -- but he acknowledges the injury hurt his play. In the rout of Maryland, Watson scored 17 points, had a school-record 16 assists without committing a turnover and made four steals; in the 24-point defeat to Iowa State, he scored eight points and handed out five assists.
Now his eye is fully recovered, and Watson is working on all aspects of his game. He moved to the point from the two-guard spot last season after Baron Davis left for the pros. It took some time for Watson to adjust to the leadership demands of the position, but then, "Toward the end of last season, I learned how to do that," he says. "It just became instinctive. Instead of me thinking about it, it just started to happen." Now he wants to reach a higher level. "I want to get to the point as a point guard where I can dominate a game by playing defense and being a leader, and dishing out the ball, and letting everything else fall into place."
Perhaps Watson's most difficult adjustment in college was off the court, getting used to being away from his home and family in Kansas City, Kans. "I felt real homesick my first year," he says. "I missed winters a lot. It's just amazing how [during] winters here there's no snow. I couldn't really adjust to that." But he has learned the value of independence. "Getting away from home, was, at the time, the worst thing. But now I see it was the best thing for me," he says. "I matured on my own."
Watson grew up in what he calls inner-city Kansas City, where educational opportunties were few and far between. At Washington High, his textbooks were falling apart and he didn't touch a computer until his senior year. At UCLA, Watson is majoring in history and with interests in math, business and law, his future is wide open. "There are so many things I want to do with my life after basketball," he says. "I'm interested in film, in being successful in business, law, just so many things. My goal is to graduate in the spring, and right now I'm on pace to do that. That's something that I'm so determined about." And for next year? "I envision a lot of things: to graduate, and possibly win a national championship."