Basketball COVID-19 Long Beach Poly

Feature: Behind the Scenes of Peyton Watson’s UCLA Commitment

Long Beach Poly senior-to-be Peyton Watson announced his commitment to play his NCAA basketball at UCLA last week, live on a national platform with Fox Sports. It was a thrilling couple of days for Watson and his family, who’ve been working towards this point since he was a toddler.

“It was by far the most exciting day of my life, ever,” said Watson. “The whole day felt like a dream, way more than what I would have expected. It was just so fun.”

Watson made the announcement live with Fox, and was immediately the top story on ESPN, Bleacher Report, and all the college basketball websites. That night, legendary KCBS television sportscaster Jim Hill pulled up to the Watsons’ house in Bixby Knolls to interview him, which brought out all the neighbors to take pictures.

“That’s a dream come true, honestly,” said Watson. “I’ll remember that forever, the news pulling up to my house on commitment day. I’ve seen him on TV my whole life, it was surreal to see him in the neighborhood.”

The surreal scenes didn’t end that evening either, as the family woke up to see Dick Vitale tweeting about how good Watson’s game was, and what a big deal it was for UCLA to keep California’s top recruit home in Southern California.

“Yeah, Dick Vitale was nuts to me,” said Antoinette Watson, Peyton’s mother. “And Snoop Dogg called Pey right after he announced, so that was crazy–we listen to a lot of Snoop. Matt Barnes, Trevor Ariza all checked in with him.”

Peyton said a lot went into his decision, including considerations about the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited travel. Part of the reason for Watson to stay home was that his family would still be able to see him, and he’ll still be able to go to Poly games to see his younger brother Chris.

“It was by far the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Peyton. “I built relationships with all the coaches, we had multiple coaches really pressing. They all had nice facilities, they all produce pros. At the end of the day, UCLA just felt like home for me.”

It’s a decision keeping in line with the chart Watson has charted for himself as an old-school type of player. He declined to transfer to a private school or prep program, choosing to play all four years at his local public high school–he said he finds UCLA to have a similar big public school family vibe to Poly.

“They’re the original blue blood and they’re in our backyard,” he said.

Watson’s commitment also means he’s come to the end of the full-time job of being a major college basketball recruit, something that’s occupied quite a bit of time over the last 12 months.

“I’m relieved I’m not waking up to texts at 4 a.m. because the coaches are texting from another time zone,” said Antionette with a laugh. “It’s a relief to not have the phone buzzing all the time. Peyton took the brunt of it–we were so  brand new to this process we didn’t have a system set up for it. It was exciting, but I’d look at his phone and there’s 300 text messages, and his DMs are worse. The messages that adults and college students are sending are crazy.”

There are a few more difficult decisions ahead of Watson, but he’s already made them. It’s become a trend over the last year for elite basketball prospects to sign G-League contracts with NBA teams right out of high school, bypassing the NCAA completely. Watson said that isn’t something that interested him.

“Salute to the guys who went to the G-League this year,” he said. “I’m 17, I’m still a kid. If I can’t go straight to the league, I’m going to college to get that experience, mature, get stronger, and continue my education. Whether it’s a year or four years, there’s a value to being at a school like UCLA, that sets you up forever. All the colleges have the program where even if you leave early, you can come back and finish your degree on scholarship.”

The other decision is what to do with his senior season. All basketball players in California are looking at a decision between high school basketball and AAU ball, since the CIF State pushed the high school season to a March start. Watson said he’s done with club ball, and will focus on his high school.

“I’m 100% focused on my senior season with Poly,” he said. “All I’m hoping is we can have a normal season. Playing at home, in front of our fans, is the best thing. We’ll be amazing this year.”

As the whirlwind recruitment is coming to an end, the family is enjoying some quiet time together, with Peyton and Chris both finding time to practice and train. 

Their father, Julio, said he’s enjoyed the process, even with its stresses.

“I’ve been with them all along,” he said. “It was surreal and amazing and all the superlatives the last few days, but I just always believed somewhere that we’d be at this point. Seeing Jim Hill and the excitement of the UCLA fan base has been surprising–but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect this.”

 

Mike Guardabascio
Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.
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