Nate Watson Returns for Year 5: Thoughts & Impact to 2021-2022 Friars

Big man Nate Watson made a surprise return to PC, utilizing the free year of eligibility offered by the NCAA, to play his 5th year back in Providence. Nate Watson cited unfinished business, playing in the Dunk again, and improving his NBA draft stock as a few reasons for his return.

The importance of Watson’s return cannot be understated. Watson was a 2nd team All Big East big man, but averaged more points than Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who made first team All-Big East and was a Co-POY. Watson will return to the Big East as one of, if not the, best offensive big men in the nation.

Below, we analyze the impact of his return and offer some thoughts on improvements to Watson’s game to get him NBA ready.

Impact to 2021-2022 Friars

Without stating the obvious, the Providence Friars needed some good news in the worst way. With the horrendous loss to DePaul in the Big East Tournament, Cooley leaving the sideline early during the game, and two players transferring from the team, there was a sense of negativity around the program.

Watson’s announcement should eliminate the toxicity permeating around the program. It also provides some stability to the program, which appears to be needed at this moment. With Watson’s return, the odds of Noah Horchler and David Duke Jr. returning are that much greater. Watson took a calculated risk in returning, and I don’t think he does that if Horchler and Duke Jr. have both already indicated that they are moving on from the program.

On the court, the impact of his return is obvious. Nate averaged career highs this year in points (16.9), field goal percentage (60.2%), minutes played (32.3 minutes), rebounds (6.7), and blocks (1.0). Nate led the Friars in scoring and was third overall in scoring in the Big East. Watson was also 10th in the league in rebounding. Having Watson for another year completely changes the trajectory for next year’s Friars. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nate be a Preseason All American and Big East Player of the Year candidate. Returning to school is going to boost his exposure in a massive way.

The trickledown effect for the rest of the roster is important too. I think most would admit that Croswell, at this point in his career, isn’t ready to hold down the starting 5 spot. That may change with an offseason of development, but Watson returning solidifies that one of the starting 5 spots will be a returning player. Continuity is important in college basketball, as I’ve continually referenced the Mike Brey line of “staying old”. Additionally, it allows incoming freshman Rafael Castro, by all accounts a 4 or 5 on this team, to learn under one of the most dominant frontcourt players in the nation. The importance of that development cannot be stated enough.

Lastly, Watson’s return should pique the interest of transfer backcourt players. Guards love playing with dominant big men, as it frees them up to have open looks from deep. Watson was consistently double teamed this year (sometimes triple teamed), and I would hope Cooley is preaching to a transfer shooter that wide open looks are readily available with Watson returning.

Who knows what David Duke Jr. and Noah Horchler are going to do, but I think Watson’s return elevates this team to an NCAA tourney squad and incentivities both of these players to return and finish what they started.

Improvements for Next Year

Watson cited that he wanted to return to boost his NBA draft stock. We think there are a few things that Watson can work on that will help improve his stock.

  1. Extending his shooting range: Watson already showed this year he can do this, as he hit that elbow jumper with relative consistency. If he can extend his range to hitting 3’s, Watson has a very real shot of getting drafted. Even averaging 30-35% from deep would be considered a massive improvement and show NBA scouts Watson continues to eliminate weaknesses from his game.

With that said, Watson has to walk a fine line between making himself a more complete player while recognizing the skillsets that have gotten him to where he is today. The last thing I think Friar fans want to see is Nate hanging around the arc and not banging down low for the majority of the game. The paint is where he is most impactful. If Cooley can draw up 1-2 plays a game where Watson has the chance to get a look from 3, I’m all for it.

2. Protecting the Rim: For as athletic as Nate is offensively, a lot of times Watson would seem “lost” on defense. If Watson can really focus on this aspect of his game and become more of a defensive presence by altering shots at the rim, he becomes one of the elite two-way players in all of college basketball. I think another year of good health will naturally cause him to be playing more above the rim defensively, but time will tell. I’d expect the strength staff to work on plyometric training and foot speed training with Nate to get him quicker off the ground.

Conclusion: On the court, Watson’s impact is obvious. I anticipate Nate next year to average something like 19 and 8 and be one of the most dominant big men in the NCAA. Off the court, Watson’s return may be even more important. This was a big recruiting win for Cooley, as Watson returning increases the likelihood that Duke and Horchler return. If Watson had departed, I think it would have had a domino effect and caused both of those two to depart as well. A year that was potentially going to be a major rebuild year now has the makings of a year with huge expectations.

Watson has certainly made Friar fans extremely happy, and his loyalty to the program will endear him to Friar fans forever. He now has the opportunity in front of him to go from a productive Friar in his career to one of the all-time greats in Providence. Kudos to you, Nate.

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