There’s a fascinating clock that starts on players like Paul Watson once it becomes clear they’re not merely end-of-bench flotsam. Yes, I realize “flotsam” sounds a bit harsh in this context — we’re talking about people here! — yet it is fitting when we consider the churn at the end of a typical NBA bench. The Raptors, one of the more stable franchises around, are still no exception to this either. When we think of players 14, 15, 16, and 17 over the past few years, it’s possible to conjure up a few names — and forget even more.
As a result, Watson’s journey from sudden two-way contact signee in Toronto (back in January 2020) to full-time roster player (in December 2020) mark him as someone worth keeping an eye on. But it also means the clock starts ticking: after the 2020-21 season, his first as an actual NBA player, did Watson do enough to merit hanging around the NBA — let alone the Raptors?
Unfortunately for Watson — and the purposes of this column — the answer to that question still remains unclear. At 26 (and a half) years old, Watson’s first season as a rostered player did not go particularly well. Thanks largely to injuries, Watson appeared in only 27 games for Toronto (which is nevertheless a career-high), filling spot duties during the first half of the season, then finally getting a sustained run of play while the team collapsed due to COVID-19. This was followed by a return to the injured list with a wonky knee. It’s true the bulk of Watson’s playing time came while the Raptors were going through the worst month of their recent history — but it’s hard to blame the team’s problems on him. He was out there letting fly from three (shooting 47 from deep on the season) and playing his brand of stone-faced, long-limbed defense, which was and still is his role on the team.
The highlight of Watson’s season with the Raptors was undoubtedly his sudden explosion for a career-high 30 points against the Magic on April 16. It was the kind of shooting performance that is something of a fluke (10-of-13 from the field), but that also hinted at the talent Watson still possesses. The very next night, however, he went an unconscionable 0-for-10 from the field, finishing with zero points and, as mentioned, broke down for the rest of the season. I’m really not sure what else to glean from that except to say: that’s sometimes how it goes.
Watson is under contract with the Raptors for 2021-22 for $1.7 million. This is the kind of NBA deal that just sort of is. If Watson played beyond expectations on a nightly basis, then it emerges as a steal, a tremendously valuable contract for the Raptors as both an on-court asset under team control or as a sweetener to be included in a trade for something even bigger. Since Watson hasn’t done that (yet), and the dollar figure involved remains relatively small from the league’s perspective, there’s not really much to be done with Watson except to hope he continues to develop with Toronto and fill a role next season. And, most importantly: that he stays healthy.
Here’s where we have to mention though: the Raptors will need to have someone on the team for 2021-22. While the team’s core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby, along with highly touted rookie Malachi Flynn, are locked in long-term, the rest of Toronto’s squad (save Watson) have no guarantees they’ll be back next year. Yes, that includes Kyle Lowry right on down to Aron Baynes. And while it remains likely the Raptors can and will figure out ways to bring back players like Khen Birch, Freddie Gillespie, and Yuta Watanabe, only Watson is guaranteed to be on the squad in Toronto by dint of his contract.
But the clock is ticking. Watson will need to have some kind of 2021-22 to stick with the Raptors beyond that. And with his 27th birthday in December, coming just shy of two weeks after the one-year anniversary of his full-time signing, his window to make a mark in the NBA is closing. While this is supposed to be a review, a document of what’s already happened, Watson fills a different — and yes, fascinating — spot on the Raptors. We’re still wondering and waiting to see what he’ll become.