Familiarity breeds content as top prospect Peyton Watson picks UCLA

Long Beach Poly's Peyton Watson.
Long Beach Poly's Peyton Watson committed to UCLA on Monday. (Nick Koza)

Peyton Watson visited Arizona. He visited Washington. He visited Gonzaga.

He picked UCLA.

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 further enticement.

“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 ways.

Cronin echoed that vision while recruiting Watson.

“He 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.

Watson’s 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.

While 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.

“I 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.

The 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.

“Knowing 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 ourselves there.”