C.J. Watson’s subtle impact helping Orlando Magic

C.J. Watson, Orlando Magic, P.J. Tucker, Phoenix Suns

Nov 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) shoots the ball over Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

C.J. Watson‘s statistics look poor this season. Yet Frank Vogel has continually turned to the veteran guard for his subtle impact on the floor.

C.J. Watson’s play is very much like his public personality.

Watson is relatively unassuming. He generally keeps quiet. His responses to the media — when they do ask for him — tend to be short and to the point. Watson stays on message and speaks somewhat in cliche and generalities. It is easy to forget Watson is around.

Watson’s seeming absence has characterized his two years in Orlando so far. He missed most of last season with a mysterious calf strain, keeping the veteran on the sidelines as the team’s season blossomed and unraveled. The Orlando Magic never got to see what he might provide the team as a steadying force and shooter.

This season, Watson got buried a bit in the rotation crunch. The Magic added Jodie Meeks at shooting guard and D.J. Augustin at point guard to push him out of the rotation. But with Evan Fournier injured, the Magic have turned to Watson somewhat controversially to fill those backup shooting guard minutes.

Watson is averaging 2.7 points per game and shooting a 36.2 percent effective field goal percentage. In his latest stint in the rotation the past six games, he is averaging 4.2 points per game and shooting 31.3 percent from the floor and an icy 17.6 percent from beyond the arc.

It is admittedly hard to justify his play by his individual statistics. He does not do a lot that impacts the box score. Eventually, his struggles hitting shots are going to push him out of the rotation. Almost certainly when Evan Fournier returns, his minutes will dry up. Yet Watson still plays a major role for the Magic.

The reason Watson plays is something different. It is not necessarily what he provides on a box score, but perhaps the versatility and knowledge he brings. Watson is rarely in the wrong spot on either end of the floor. He is not a player who is going to make a ton of mistakes.

His role is to settle things down and do something much more subtle.

“[C.J. and Damjan Rudez are] guys who know what they are doing,” coach Frank Vogel said last week. “On both ends of the court, they have great IQs. I told C.J. the other day that was most productive 0-for 4 performance [against Memphis] maybe I have ever seen. He played really well and didn’t make a shot.”

Watson concurred. He said his role is to come off the bench and bring energy, trying to change the pace of the game. His job is to “make shots, play hard on defense and try to keep everyone settled.”

Fans can certainly debate whether he does that successfully.

C.J. Watson, orlando Magic

Mar 26, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) shoots a technical foul shot after Chicago Bulls guard Aaron Brooks (not pictured) was ejected during the second half of a basketball game at Amway Center. The Magic won 111-89. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran savvy or poor shooting?

Watson’s poor shooting does stand out like a sore thumb. Especially considering the Magic originally brought him to help space the floor and make 3-pointers as a backup point guard. It will be tough to continue justifying playing Watson if these numbers do not reverse.

Yet, there are plenty of moments where it is clear his veteran savvy pay off.

Against the New York Knicks on Monday, Watson’s lone make came when he received a pass in transition and hit a reverse layup in traffic, drawing a foul. In Monday’s game, three of Watson’s four shots were at the rim. And his lone 3-pointer was wide open.

Watson has shown a penchant for getting to the rim, and he generally stays in his lane taking 3-pointers for the majority of his shots.

Of course, he is not making those shots. So he has to find his productivity elsewhere. And much of that comes in practice in helping the team prepare.

“He’s a very savvy basketball player on both ends,” Vogel said. “We put him one day as the point guard running some offense against some defensive schemes that we implemented. Every time we called it out, he was kind of toying with you and would exploit whatever coverage was coming his way. He knows how to battle on the defensive end 1s and 2s and guard people’s strengths.

“C.J. Watson is a good basketball player. We benefit every time he is on the floor.”

There may be something to that. Or there may not, depending on your perspective. The numbers tell an odd story about Watson. One that makes it hard to justify Watson’s play.

For the season, the Magic have a 94.7 offensive rating with Watson on the floor and a 98.8 defensive rating. Watson’s defensive chops — he has a -1.0 defensive box plus-minus, according to Basketball-Reference, for whatever that is worth — does seem to have a positive effect. Or, at least, Watson is on the floor with good defensive lineups.

But in the last six games, the Magic have a 98.6 offensive rating with Watson on the floor and a 105.6 defensive rating. Orlando’s defense is still above its average for this time frame with Watson on the floor. But that offense is obviously a drag.

This is not all Watson’s fault, of course. There are four other players on the floor. Still, those offensive numbers do not seem to be a coincidence. Watson’s poor shooting makes it hard to justify his play.

Mar 11, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) dribbles the basketball against Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi (18) in the second quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 11, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) dribbles the basketball against Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi (18) in the second quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The little things

If there is one area Watson is good at, it is in make the little plays the league has only just started calculating. He is fifth on the team with 1.1 deflections per game. Impressive considering how few minutes he has played. He is third on the team in charges drawn per game too.

The Magic do not rank well in either category. The deflections especially are an area where Vogel would like to see the team improve. It is at least a signal of the team’s general activity.

And this, at least, seems to suggest Watson is a defensive pest.

“He just knows how to play the game,” Vogel said. “He knows how to guard guys. He knows how to be in the right spot on the defensive end. One thing he does well is he is really good with his hands. Our team, in general, is not great with deflections and steals. He helps us there. He’s a guy you trust to make open shots and make good basketball plays when he is using the bounce.”

Despite all these seeming contradicting numbers, Watson clearly has Vogel’s trust to make the right plays. Some of that may very well be Vogel’s previous experience with Watson from their time together with the Indiana Pacers. Some of that might very well be a general preference to rely more on “veterans.”

Watson seems to fit the descriptors of a player with “veteran presence.” He brings an intangible quality and benefit to the team by, in some instances, staying out of the way.

Apr 10, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) is pressured by Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 10, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard C.J. Watson (32) is pressured by Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Short-term stability

But the numbers and analytics make it hard to justify his play. At least what is publicly available. That may not mean there are better options available, but it certainly merits some discussion of a change.

Vogel seems to be aware of this. While praising Watson’s play during this stretch, he joked once Fournier comes back, Watson will be squeezed out of the rotation once again. That is his conundrum with these minutes. It seems he is more concerned with holding the ship steady than with finding a long-term solution. That may ultimately favor Watson.

Being the veteran he is, Watson’s mindset when he steps on the court is simply to play hard. To him, making shots are part of his job, but not the primary role he plays. His role is, again, to bring energy and keep things settled.

“Whether I’m playing hard or not, I can only predict how hard I play,” Watson said. “I just try to go out there and play hard every time. Whether I make shots or not, I try to go out there and leave everything out on the court and play for my teammates.”

It is hard to argue he does not do that. Watson plays hard and is generally in the right spot. His issue at the moment is his inability to make shots. That has limited any effectiveness he could have.

Vogel has stuck with Watson through this stretch, however. His reasons are certainly less about Watson’s individual production and more about what he may provide the team. And perhaps Watson is better in practice than he is in games.

If Watson makes an impact, it is certainly a subtle one and hard to measure. There remains plenty in the arsenal to argue for a change or to give other players a chance.

For now, the Magic appear ready to stick with Watson until Evan Fournier returns.

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