With his shot-blocking prowess, Peyton Watson becomes big catalyst off the bench for the Nuggets

Updated Apr. 12, 2024 12:08 a.m. ET

DENVER (AP) — High-rising Peyton Watson takes the elevation of his role in stride this season.

The second-year bundle of energy who comes off the bench for the Denver Nuggets has been a shot-swatting, rebound-grabbing catalyst for a team that’s chasing a second straight NBA title.

More recognizable these days — thanks to co-starring in a funny hotel commercial alongside two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and a pony — Watson sometimes cautions himself not to be in too big of a rush, to enjoy each moment of this journey.

It's a seasoned outlook for the 21-year-old player who was taken under the wing of Kevin Durant in high school and mentored by Jokic and company once he got to the NBA.


“I’m so competitive and I want everything right now,” said Watson, who had six blocks in Denver’s 116-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday that vaulted the Nuggets into the No. 1 seed in the West. “Sometimes, I’ve got to slow myself down.”

Watson has the ideal box score in mind (during a win, of course): 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. That would tell him he’s engaged on both ends of the floor, he said. That everything is flowing.

Someday, that kind of box score could be the tip of the iceberg for the player currently averaging 6.6 points and 3.2 rebounds. Ask around the team, and the most improved player from last season’s title run to this season is clear.

"Definitely Peyton Watson,” said Reggie Jackson, who rolls with the second unit that includes Watson and Christian Braun. “His demeanor, his growth — he has less times that I realize how young he is.”

By his own admission, Watson was a late-bloomer on the hardwood. He entered high school at 6-foot-1 before sprouting to 6-7 (he's now listed at 6-8). It took a moment for his skills to catch up.

“I remember one day just waking up and I was able to do a 360 (degree dunk),” Watson said. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ That’s how it goes.”

One time in high school, Durant happened to show up in the stands for a game. The 14-time All-Star was there to watch Watson’s Long Beach Polytechnic (California) squad go against a Mayfair team led by Josh Christopher, who was drafted by Houston in 2021 and bounced around before playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce this season.

Impressed with Watson’s game, Durant reached out and invited Watson to play in pickup games with him and a few other NBA standouts.

“That confidence boost was huge," Watson said.

Watson played a season at UCLA, where he averaged a pedestrian 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds. Still, GM Calvin Booth and the Nuggets saw enough in him to grab him at No. 30 through a draft-night deal with Oklahoma City.

“I’ll forever be grateful for the Nuggets for taking a chance on me,” Watson said. “They believed in me when a lot of people didn’t.”

Chalk up a big part of his growth to spending time with Grand Rapids of the NBA's G League last season. He picked up some tips from coach and longtime NBA player Andre Miller.

“Taught me that you’ve got to work for everything you get," said Watson, who has 13 blocked shots over his last three games. “Nothing is just given to you.”

He saw action in 23 games last season for the Nuggets, but received a first-rate education from the bench. He’d sit next to the veterans and ask questions about the game.

Jokic, in particular, was instrumental.

“He always gave me the straight-up truth,” said Watson, who played in five playoff games last season as the Nuggets captured their first NBA title. "It was always great to pick his brain.”

Watson dabbled in acting alongside Jokic for a series of Hotels.com commercials. In one of the spots, Jokic walks with Watson through a hotel lobby, with Jokic leading a pony. Watson asks if it's cool to bring the pony into the hotel and Jokic informs him the place is pet friendly.

That leads Watson to joke: “You know, two guys and a horse walk into a hotel ...”

Jokic emphatically corrects him, “This is a pony!”

Yep, Watson gets that line repeated back to him all the time.

“It’s been amazing, even for me to watch a game (on television) and see myself when the commercials come on,” said Watson, who has the same agency, Excel Sports, as Jokic. “It’s just something that you dream about.”

As for his responsibilities with the Nuggets, they've gone way up. He averaged 8.1 minutes last season and 18.6 this season. His points (3.3 to 6.6) and rebounds (1.6 to 3.2) are up, too.

He’s taking his expanded role in stride.

“I really just go into every game with the same mindset, which is to go in and do my job to the best of my abilities,” Watson said. “I love watching my teammates succeed and I love to go out there and be the reason for our success, as well."


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