“Chris is returning to school due to too much
uncertainty on both sides of the coin,” said Sean Smith, alluding to the
COVID-19 pandemic that led to the cancellation of workouts for NBA prospects
and a delayed draft. “He’ll finish his degree and work to improve in the areas
he needs to improve on.”
Chris Smith’s return means that the core of a
team that won 11 of its last 14 games during coach Mick
Cronin’s debut season at UCLA will come back intact for the 2020-21 season.
The Bruins will also add freshman Jaylen
Clark and Kentucky transfer Johnny
Juzang, putting them in position to be considered among the frontrunners in
the Pac-12. Juzang was granted a waiver giving him immediate eligibility.
“I’m returning for my senior year because I’d
really like to finish what I’ve started at UCLA,” Smith
said in a statement posted on Twitter. “We have some unfinished
business and I want one last run with my teammates and coaches. These guys mean
the world to me. It’s also very important to me to finish up strong in the
classroom and earn my degree.”
Smith was UCLA’s leading scorer and a first-team All-Pac-12
selection last season, averaging 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. But he
was projected as a borderline second-round pick in the NBA draft and withdrew
his name from the pool of early entrants after the draft was pushed back from
June to October because of the COVID-19
uncertainty surrounding Smith’s draft stock and his inability to significantly
enhance it were compelling reasons for a return to college. NBA teams had been
barred from conducting in-person workouts or interviews with prospects in
recent months because of the novel coronavirus, resulting in little movement
among previous draft projections.
is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached — he’s always got a positive
attitude, he allows me to coach him and he’s just a great kid — so selfishly
for me just to be able to be around him for another season, I’m happy about
it,” Cronin said. “From start to finish this year, hopefully he can play with
more consistency and show that he’s a first-round talent. I think there’s
people that think that but they weren’t convinced of it in the draft and coming
back’s going to give him the opportunity to convince people.”
intrigued NBA scouts as an athletic 6-foot-9 guard with considerable upside and
as someone who just turned 20 in December.
improvement came in all facets of his game last season, when he set career
highs in not just points and rebounds but also assists (1.6 per game), steals,
(1.0), field-goal accuracy (45.8%), three-point accuracy (34.1%) and free-throw
His stock soared with a 30-point
outburst against Colorado in late January before questions about
consistency reemerged when he was held to single digits in scoring in four of
his next eight games. He also could be sloppy with his ballhandling and prone
to committing turnovers in bunches, including six during the Bruins’
season-ending loss to USC.
But his return will make him the presumptive go-to scorer on a
team that will bring back all five starters and should be able to avoid the
early season doldrums that left UCLA with a 7-6 record last season after the
end of nonconference play. If things work out, Smith will improve his draft
stock and maybe add another Pac-12 award to a growing collection of conference
The Bruins scored one of their biggest
recruiting coups under coach Mick Cronin on Monday evening when the fast-rising
prospect from Long Beach Poly High verbally committed to a school he did not
officially visit because he was already familiar with what it had to offer.
UCLA was close to home, allowing the 6-foot-7
guard ranked as the eighth-best prospect nationally by 247 Sports to
play in front of family and friends after completing his senior year of high
school during the 2020-21 season. He will also be able to attend many of his
younger brother Christian’s high school games. And the Bruins’ list of famous
alumni including Watson favorites Russell Westbrook and Zach LaVine provided
“I’ve been following UCLA closely for a long
time,” Watson, who has developed relationships with other notable Bruins alumni
including Matt Barnes, Darren Collison, Trevor Ariza and Baron Davis, told The
Times on Monday.
Watson became one of the nation’s most coveted players after
flourishing at a USA Basketball Camp last summer and taking on a far more
prominent role for his high school team last season, averaging 23.2 points and
eight rebounds per game. He said he envisioned playing point guard, shooting
guard and small forward at the college level while contributing in a variety of
echoed that vision while recruiting Watson.
just told me that he could see me doing it all for UCLA — rebounding, dishing
it, dribbling, initiating the offense but also scoring the ball as well,”
Watson said of Cronin, who cannot comment on recruits until they sign binding
letters of intent.
commitment significantly enhances a 2021 recruiting class that also includes
Will McClendon, a four-star shooting guard from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High.
Watson said he’s committed to attending college and would not opt for the
lucrative G League academy like Daishen Nix, the onetime UCLA signee who
spurned the Bruins for professional basketball.
Watson went from coming off the bench to starring for the Jackrabbits in the
span of one season, he said his rise was not as fast as it might have seemed.
wouldn’t say I’m an overnight success, even if that’s how people saw it,” Watson
said. “It took years for me to get to where I am, and it’s going to take more
years for me to ultimately get to my prime and be the best I can be.”
Watson said he’s working on enhancing his strength to help his
ballhandling, long-range shooting and ability to jostle with bigger players
near the basket.
novel coronavirus pandemic that resulted in a premature end to UCLA’s season
and has prevented most players from returning to campus may have worked to the
Bruins’ advantage when it came to Watson. He had already attended a handful of
UCLA games and knew the campus well before travel outside of Southern
California became problematic.
that we couldn’t take [additional] visits, we were more inclined to make the
decision to go to UCLA,” said Watson, whose uncle Brantley Watson graduated
from the school. “We knew a lot about UCLA that we could definitely see
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.”
"I'm the No. 1 player in California, and I feel like UCLA is the original blue blood," Watson told ESPN. "It's hard to pass up an amazing school where my parents can see me play and have the support of my community behind me."
Watson, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, is ranked No. 25 in the ESPN 100 for 2021. He averaged 23.5 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists last season.
Watson took official visits to Gonzaga, Washington and Arizona and went to UCLA multiple times unofficially for games.
"I'm a huge family guy," Watson said. "It means a lot to me that my family will be able to come to the games."
Watson is Mick Cronin's second ESPN 100 commitment in the 2021 class, joining four-star shooting guard Will McClendon. Cronin's first full recruiting class in Westwood included just one player, four-star Jaylen Clark, following five-star point guard Daishen Nix's decision to bypass college for the G League.
Cronin also landed Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, a former top-30 recruit who received a waiver to play immediately next season for the Bruins.
When Watson arrives on campus, he'll join a team that will remain mostly intact from the 2020-21 season, with only one senior expected on that team.
"I think I can make a huge impact immediately with my versatility and skill set," he said. "My goal is to lead UCLA to a national championship."