Growing up in Long Beach, playing basketball at the JCC as a kid and at Long Beach Poly as he grew, Peyton Watson dreamed of the moment that happened last night. The Long Beach and Bixby Knolls native was in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn where he heard NBA commissioner Adam Silver announce his name as a first-round NBA Draft pick, taken with pick 30 by the Denver Nuggets.
Watson stood and blinked a few times in the bright spotlight. He hugged his mother Antoinette, his father Julio, his sister JoJo, his uncle Brantley, his brother Christian, and close family friend Damian Massey. Then he made his way to the stage to hug Silver, put on a Nuggets hat, and step into the next stage of his life.
“Peyton Watson is a great kid with unbelievable potential,” said Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth in a post-draft press conference. “Very intelligent, loves basketball, loves playing defense. Those are rare traits for someone with his physical dimensions and athleticism.”
Watson, a 6-8 200 pound wing, was a McDonald’s All-American at Long Beach Poly. The Nuggets traded JaMychal Green and a 2027 first-round draft pick to Oklahoma City in exchange for the 30th pick, which was used to select Watson.
He makes history for Long Beach and his high school–he’s the ninth Long Beach Poly alum to make the NBA, tying the Jackrabbits with Mater Dei for most NBA products in California history (Mack Calvin, Tyus Edney, Bobby Jones, Ozell Jones, Ben McDonald, Michael Wiley, Morlon Wiley, and Jordan Bell are the others). He’s also the first-ever first round draft pick for Poly and just the third-ever Long Beach product (Jordan’s James Hardy went 11th in 1978 and Wilson’s Swen Nater went 16th in 1973).
At the Century Club Sports Night Banquet earlier in the week, Watson said that he had felt really good about his workouts in Denver, along with workouts with San Antonio, Toronto, and Golden State. He said he felt the teams he worked out for all valued his defensive ability and dedication, which was obviously key in the Nuggets picking him based on Booth’s press conference.
“He guarded all positions, he’s blocking shots,” said Booth of Watson’s year at UCLA. “Offensively it didn’t go well for him last year to be honest, but I believe he has offensive ability. He loves to play defense though, he’s a basketball junkie, and he’s really intelligent. He has all-NBA defense potential.”
After an All-American and Moore League Player of the Year career at Poly, Watson played in 32 games last year at UCLA, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game, earning Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honors. Watson was also a key contributor to the USA Men’s Basketball U19 team that won a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup the summer after his senior year of high school.
Just 19 years old, Watson has had a meteoric rise from those days practicing daily in the JCC with his father, Julio, and younger brother Christian (a 2022 Poly grad and the Moore League Player of the Year this year). Watson played on the frosh-soph team at Poly his freshman year and came off the bench as a sophomore. His coach, Shelton Diggs, saw enormous potential in him at a young age, however.
“He’s gonna be the best player in the city the next two years and he has a chance to be one of the all-time Poly great,” Diggs said. “You know I don’t say that lightly.”
An invite to a USA Basketball youth camp helped secure that future. Watson arrived as a mid-major recruit with not much scholarship attention and left the camp as a top 15 player in his class, with college coaches across the country banging down his door. He continued to work and to grow, earning All-American honors and choosing UCLA for his one year of NCAA basketball.