Peyton Watson ready to contribute for UCLA after winning FIBA gold medal for USA

Peyton Watson makes sure to appreciate how lucky he is each time he puts on a practice jersey. So much so that when the UCLA men’s basketball team practices in Pauley Pavilion, he takes a moment to take it all in.

“It’s a dream come true,” Watson said of playing for the Bruins. “We’ve practiced in Pauley (Pavilion) a few times in the past couple of weeks, and before practice, I was just standing in the middle of Pauley and one of our managers called over to ask if I was OK. …

“I was just sitting there like it was a dream, it felt so surreal. Every time I walk into Pauley I’m appreciative of the chance to put on the jersey and play in front of our fans.”

The former McDonald’s All-American isn’t going to just play as a freshman, he’s going to contribute.

“Peyton is very quick and very good with the ball,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s got a lot of point-forward aspects to his game. He’s a creator.”

Watson is a long, athletic and dynamic 6-foot-8 wing. He showed what he can do offensively at Long Beach Poly High, scoring 30 points per game in the Jackrabbits’ abbreviated 2021 spring season. He averaged 23.2 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior. But scoring isn’t what he’s most excited to bring to the table.

He wants to bring his defense, something UCLA fans know Cronin will love.

“A lot of people saw my potential in that area over the summer with Team USA,” Watson said. “(I learned) some defensive techniques and things that I can improve on and I’ve become an even better defender. I know I can make an impact there.”

UCLA freshman basketball player Peyton Watson is ready to make an impact right away for the Bruins. (Jesus Ramirez/UCLA Athletics)

Watson was part of USA Basketball’s U-19 team, which won gold this past summer at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Latvia. He had two blocked shots in five minutes off the bench in the gold medal game. The roster was filled with standouts, including Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Wisconsin’s Patrick Baldwin Jr., Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler – all of whom are projected to be first-round draft picks in the 2022 NBA Draft (along with Watson, of course).

“The practices were always super intense. … We were practicing twice a day for two and a half weeks. There was a lot of talent on that roster. I was lucky to be one of the guys selected for the team,” Watson said.

Watson said the practices helped him get better, but the games did too. Especially in a facet he knows he needs to improve on, his strength and physicality.

“The (summer) prepared me in multiple aspects,” he said. “Definitely the physicality of playing overseas, all those teams we played – Spain, Argentina and Australia – they were all physical and knew how to play the game.”

Since arriving on campus, he’s taken his size and strength very seriously. He’s been weight training with athletic trainer Wes Long, and watching what he eats with more attention to detail.

“I’ve started to take the nutrition aspect of it very seriously,” said Watson, who said he has gained 12 pounds of muscle and is now 205 pounds. “My movements are the same, if not better. I feel great.”

The USA team was coached by TCU’s Jamie Dixon, Stanford’s Jerod Haase and Yale’s James Jones. Watson was getting next-level coaching before Cronin got him in the Bruin program.

“I also learned terminology … when I got to Westwood, it was some of the same terminology they used here, so that was very helpful,” Watson said.

UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 title in the preseason media poll, which isn’t a surprise with the entire roster returning from a team that reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament last spring. Adding a “future NBA first-rounder” like Watson might lead one to believe the Bruins are a shoo-in for another Final Four run. That seems like pressure, but not to Watson.

“I never see it as pressure because this is what I’ve worked my whole life to do,” Watson said. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about. I just see it as an opportunity. I’m more excited than anything.”

In just a few weeks, Watson will likely stand at midcourt in Pauley Pavilion again, but it won’t be before practice. It will be before a game with thousands of fans on hand, including his family. That’s probably the biggest part of his dream coming true.

“It was extremely important, if not at the top of my list,” Watson said of the importance of playing in front of family when he decided to commit to UCLA. “My family has been at every game since I was 8 years old.”

UCLA will begin its season on Thursday, Nov. 4, at Pauley Pavilion with a 7 p.m. exhibition against Chico State. The Bruins host Cal State Bakersfield for their regular-season opener on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.

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