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For the Cougs, playing against NBA icons' sons has been cool and nothing -- at once

Jan. 23—PULLMAN — Isaiah Watts couldn't miss the opportunity. He had just joined his Washington State teammates for warmups, getting ready for the second half against USC earlier this month in Los Angeles, when he spotted one of the greatest of all time.

"Yo, what's up, Bron?" Watts called out.

He was talking to LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers forward, the father of USC freshman guard Bronny James. LeBron was standing up in front of his courtside seat, facing away from Watts, who was close enough to reach out and touch him.

Watts made sure to raise his voice to get LeBron's attention. He was sure LeBron heard him.

"And he just didn't say anything," Watts said. "I was like, 'All right, bet.' I tried to play it off like I didn't say anything to him, but it's Bron. I had to say something."

So went the first of two games WSU played against the sons of NBA icons of past and present. A week later, the Cougars headed to the Bay Area to play Stanford, home of Andrej Stojakovic, the son of Peja Stojakovic, who had a 14-year NBA career (1998-2011) and went down as one of the league's best shooters.

Those two games provided a fascinating study into the minds and backgrounds of these Cougars, born in the early 2000s. All knew of Bronny James — his father is too famous for them not to. Fewer understood the matchup against Andrej Stojakovic.

Freshman center Rueben Chinyelu, a native of Nigeria, said during Friday's practice in California he didn't know who Peja is. Same goes for junior Oscar Cluff, who hails from Australia. For those two, it wasn't just time that prevented them from knowing about Peja — it was also geographic separation.

Then there are Cougs like senior wing Andrej Jakimovski. He's from North Macedonia, an eastern European country not too far from Stojakovic's home of Croatia. In that region, Jakimovski said, Stojakovic was a hero to all the local kids — even as young as 4 and 5 years old, like Jakimovski was in Stojakovic's prime.

"Growing up, he was one of my favorite players to watch because he was an unbelievable shooter," Jakimovski said, "and he was kind of my position. He was an idol too many kids back home, for sure."

But when Thursday's game started and Andrej Stojakovic was in the starting lineup, thanks to the absence of an injured teammate, Jakimovski had turned his attention to the contest. Prior, he had chatted on the phone with his family back home.

"It was a big thing for them," Jakimovski said. "For me, it was more like, it was just another game. Let's get the win. That's it."

Barely a few minutes into the game, the Cardinal went to Stojakovic, a freshman guard. WSU wing Jaylen Wells greeted him at the rim with a block. For Wells, it seemed like too easy of a play — like he had played Stojakovic before.

That's because he has. Because Peja played the majority of his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings, he raised Andrej in Sacramento, California — the same area where Wells grew up. Wells and Stojakovic attended the same elementary and middle school. They worked out together last summer. They aren't close, but Wells considers Andrej a good friend.

Turns out, he knew him well enough to have a feel for where Andrej would go with the ball. He drove to his left, where Wells met him for an easy block.

"I was surprised," Wells said. "He went straight at me, immediately right off the tip. I've been guarding him for a while, so I had to make sure he still knows."

Other Cougars got to know Peja in less personal ways.

"I heard of him because of 2K," guard Jabe Mullins said, referencing the NBA video game.

"I don't remember," redshirt freshman guard Myles Rice said, "but I'd go back and watch NBA classic games. Peja's one of the greatest shooters ever. I think that's a key part of basketball history that you just have to know about."

Two of the youngest players on WSU, Rice and Wells, are the ones who felt the best connection to both Bronny James and Andrej Stojakovic. Rice considers himself a hoophead, a basketball junkie whose father showed him all the game's best.

Same goes for Watts, whose father, Donald Watts, became a Washington Huskies standout in the late 1990s. Watts' grandfather, Slick Watts, played for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1970s. That background helped Isaiah learn about NBA icons from an early age. That's why, even at just 19 years old, Isaiah went into both games understanding the matchups — but like all his teammates, he didn't put Andrej on a pedestal.

"We don't really pay attention to names and stuff like that," Watts said. "You gotta come out here and really prove you know who you are. It don't matter if you're Slick Watts' grandson or Peja's son."

The Cougs felt the same way about playing Bronny James. Seeing LeBron courtside, well, that registered a little differently to them.

Mullins remembered one sequence from the USC game when, with his back to LeBron in his courtside seat, Mullins tossed an entry pass to one of his post teammates.

"And (LeBron) was like, 'Don't leave him. Don't leave him. Shooter right here,' " Mullins said. "I was like, 'Wow, he knows I'm a shooter.' That's sweet."

"When Bronny was guarding me," Rice said, "he would tell him, 'Hey, you're by yourself.' It was kind of cool to have him courtside and we could go out there and get the win."

For the Cougs, the coolest part was seeing LeBron walk into the game. It's the kind of thing you have to notice, they said — a 6-foot-9, 250-pound man, flanked by security, people fawning over him left and right. Lots of the Cougs grew up watching him, idolizing him, arguing about his place in the annals of NBA history.

So seeing him walk into one of their games?

"I was like, 'Oh my God,' " Watts said. "That's Bron. That's Bron. I was definitely amazed. But once the game started, I didn't care that much."

It even hit Jakimovski, who didn't move to the United States until 2020, when he debuted at Washington State. Home in North Macedonia, he said, he and his younger brother would wake up at 3 a.m. to watch LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers teams play in the NBA Finals.

It was so important to him that on game days, he would go to bed early, that way he could wake up, watch the game, then go on with his day with more sleep under his belt.

"It was worth it," Jakimovski. "He was incredible."

WSU tries to capitalize on opportunities against Utah, Colorado

For the Cougars (13-6, 4-4 Pac-12), though, it's time to turn the page. They have two home games on the schedule this week: against Utah on Wednesday night, and against Colorado on Saturday afternoon.

They're meaningful games for WSU because they're the next games up. They're also important because of the chances they represent. Utah will enter Wednesday's game ranked No. 25 in the NCAA's NET rankings, which means with a win, WSU can earn its second Quad 1 win of the season — which matters in a big way for the Cougs' NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Cougars are coming off a win over Stanford (Quad 2 win) and a loss to Cal, which represented a Quad 3 loss, the second worst of its kind. That setback may prove costly for Washington State, which is already behind in the strength-of-schedule department, ranked No. 86 nationwide, according to KenPom. The Cougs can't afford many more losses like that.

Which is why these two games present WSU with a nice opportunity.

The Cougs can counter that bad loss with two quality wins. Colorado enters Wednesday ranked No. 34 in the NET rankings, which would mean a Quad 2 Washington State win, depending on how the rankings shake up. (Quality of wins change depending on the way teams move up and down in the NET ratings.)

Last month, WSU dropped both of its games against Utah and Colorado, which came on the same road trip. The Utes overwhelmed the Cougars with their size and the Buffaloes held off a late comeback attempt from WSU, which started its Pac-12 slate with two straight losses.

Can the Cougs turn things around this time?

That will depend on how much they can navigate the size of the Utes, who have won three of four, and how much they slow down the scoring of the Buffaloes, who have won three straight.