How WSU guard Isaiah Watts is unlocking the Cougs' offense when they need it most

Jan. 9—PULLMAN — During the past 30 years, Washington State men's basketball head coach Kyle Smith has adopted a technique when it comes to telling reserves to be ready ahead of games: Don't do it.

"There's nothing worse as a coach than when you tell a guy to be ready," Smith said, "and you don't put them in."

In large part, that's what made WSU guard Isaiah Watts' latest outing so remarkable. In WSU's loss to Oregon on Saturday, the true freshman came off the bench for 10 points in 15 minutes, keeping the Cougars afloat with two timely 3-pointers and four baskets in total.

Watts entered the game with a shade under 9 minutes to play and he never came back out. He made critical back-to-back 3-pointers, helping the Cougars remain within striking distance. Then he rebounded a miss and hit a layup to trim what was once a 12-point lead to four. He did miss two free throws in the final seconds, but in all, it added up to a promising outing.

Watts is the son of Donald Watts, who led the Pac-10 in 3-point shooting while playing for the Washington Huskies in 1998-99. Watts' grandfather, Slick, helped the Seattle SuperSonics to their first NBA Finals in 1978.

Before he checked in against Oregon, Watts had no clue he was in store for his most minutes in a month.

"My thing is, stay ready so you don't really have to get ready," Watts said. "So just put in that work, be warm on the sidelines, be into it. I'm always into it on the bench. So I know with my voice, it will get me ready. I'll be ready."

The Cougars sure used Watts' showing — and as the season continues to unfold, they could keep using him. In some ways, Watts saw the opportunity because Oregon was playing small, spreading the floor in the absence of its two best big men, and WSU countered with similar lineups.

Watts may be showing that he can unlock his team's offense no matter the situation. He has hit five of his past 10 3-points attempts. In limited opportunities, he's shown a consistent ability to spread the floor, which is what the Cougars need as opponents key on their forwards-first approach.

"It creates for our bigs," Watts said. "Like, there was a possession in the game when I first checked in. I stood in the corner, and then (Oscar Cluff) caught it on the opposite block and really went to work. So I feel like it spreads us out a lot more, gives us a lot more space to operate."

As the games go by, as WSU tries to earn its second conference win Wednesday night at USC, it's becoming clear how important that is. The Cougars run some of the biggest lineups in the country, checking in fourth nationally with an average height of 6-foot-7, and they like to run their offense through their biggest guys — 6-11 Cluff and Rueben Chinyelu, and 6-9 Isaac Jones.

The Cougars are not coy about it. They're feeding Cluff and Jones the ball and letting them back their defenders down. It might be a dated strategy — basketball in 2024 often means 3-pointers and layups — but Smith has established it's the best one for his group. Watching WSU play basketball is sometimes like watching YouTube clips of basketball from the 1990s.

But because WSU makes no bones about the way it prefers to run offense, defenses are adjusting. They're doubling the Cougars' posts and daring their guards to make shots. They're sagging deeper into the lane, clogging up the floor . It's a huge reason why the Cougars have dropped three of four games to open Pac-12 play.

"People have really gone out of their way to take away our bigs," Smith said.

WSU is shooting 33.8% from beyond the arc, which ranks No. 156 nationally and ninth in the conference.

For WSU to alleviate that issue and space the floor, its guards and wings have to make shots at a credible clip.

"He's what we need," Smith said of Watts. "We need more perimeter shooting."

Smith said the problem has to do with the nature of those lineups. The Cougars' best offensive lineups are not their best defensive lineups, and vice versa. They concede some defense when they want to space the floor, and they concede some offense when they need to get stops. It forces Smith to make difficult decisions — and make them on the fly.

That's why Watts places such importance on staying ready. He's a true freshman. Coaches don't quite trust him as a defender yet. His best attribute is his catch-and-shoot 3, which he showed over the weekend — but for all the ways he can open up his team's offense, his opportunities will come and go.

He may be playing his way into more of them.

"I really just went in there knowing my team needs a spark, and I should be that spark," Watts said. "That's what I pride myself on, is being that spark energy-wise. "