Deadly From Deep

A feature on Terps women's hoops recruit Blair Watson.

We’re here to tell you Kobe Bryant’s got nothing on Blair Watson.

That’s right, nothing.

See, while the Nutley (N.J.) High junior modeled her signature 3-point stroke -- the one that turned her into a ESPN top 35 national recruit -- after the Black Mamba, fact is Watson’s knocking down almost half her attempts, while Bryant’s career average is 33 percent.

Hyperbole? Probably.

But there’s no denying the 6-foot-1 wing Watson, who committed to Maryland in October 2014, is downright deadly from distance. She averages 23 points and four triples per game, with a range that extends to half-court.

No, seriously.

During a season-opening victory where Watson dropped 40 points on Weequahic High, she hit not one, but two 45-footers. Her favorite one, though, came right before halftime.

With the Weequahic point guard trying to move the ball around the perimeter, Watson snuck into the passing lane; came up with a steal; quickly glanced at the clock; and, with just a tick left, bombs away.

As Bill Raftery would say, “Onions!”

“Everyone was just going crazy,” Watson said. “Just crazy. It was really, really cool.”

Know what else is cool? A thousand career points.

Watson, who still has a senior season to play, scored No. 1,000 in mid-January, and is closing in on the Nutley school record of 1,600. Her goal, by the time she’s finished high school, is 2,000.

“When she got her 1,000th point, that’s the only time I’ve ever seen her nervous in a game,” said Watson’s grandfather, Ron Colley, a former street ball player in Jersey and New York who helped rear his granddaughter in the ways of the hardwood. “And the only reason she was nervous and knew about the record is because people kept telling her about it. I bet she couldn’t even tell you how many points she scores on a given night. She’s oblivious to that stuff. Sometimes I pull her on the side and let her know what she’s doing, and she doesn’t want to hear it. She’s very modest.”

OK, some will brag for her then. Because in two years, that scoring touch is going to be on full display at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Md., and it would be a shame to deny Terps fans an early glimpse at Watson’s sweet stroke.

“She can definitely hit from long range. Sometimes, she likes the 3 ball a little too much,” laughed Nutley head coach, Larry Mitchow. “But she’s definitely the best prospect I’ve coached, there’s no doubt about it. We come from a town that’s not known for its basketball at all, both men’s and women’s. She’s probably the most highly recruited athlete we’ve every had as far as basketball goes, that’s for sure.”

Of course, Watson didn’t come out of the womb reigning 3s. In fact, she didn’t even start playing basketball until the fifth grade, which is kind of like taking up rock climbing at 50.

Rather, Watson was involved in every sport but hoops growing up. Living in Florida until she was around 11, she delved into track (“smoked everybody in the 100- and the 50-meter,” Colley said); tennis (“she was so good, her instructor wanted to take her to another level,” Colley said); baseball (“not softball, baseball”); soccer (“she played against the boys and was a hat-trick scorer”); and would’ve tried football if allowed (“she could throw better than most of the boys”).

A latter day Mo’ne Davis, no doubt.

“I mean, she played everything,” Colley said. “I used to work out with her at the park when she came up here from Florida in the summers, and she picked up all the sports very easily. And, to be honest, all those different sports she played eventually helped her with basketball. If you watch her run, she runs the floor like a gazelle; it’s different than most kids her age. That comes from all the soccer she played.”

It was in fifth grade when Watson permanently came to live with her grandfather, grandmother, mother and two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) in Nutley, N.J. Soon after arriving, Colley recalls this soccer/track/tennis prodigy wandering over to a nearby basketball court, picking up a ball, and shooting around with several neighborhood boys.

It didn’t take her long to start whooping them on a semi-regular basis.

“Right then,” Colley said, “I kind of knew. I just knew Blair had ‘it.’ She was evolving into something above the standard, and I really wasn’t surprised, because that’s just the kind of person she is. When she gets involved in something, she’s very devoted to it. She’d be up at the park, practicing with the boys, and then she’d go to another park at the center of town and practice some more. That’s how much she wanted it.”

But what about the stroke? True, Watson may have taken to the game easily, but even she admitted to rarely putting up more than layups and 5-footers at the outset.

“It was definitely hard for me to develop a 3-point shot,” Watson said. “Because where I grew up, there was a lot of shorter people, and I was in the post a lot.”

Which brings us back to Kobe Bryant, he of the unrivaled dawn-to-dusk workouts and the self-made deep jumper.

One day, after watching a Los Angeles Lakers game, Watson approached her grandfather and laid down the law. No more would she linger primarily in the paint. She wanted to score -- and score from long range.

“I was like, ‘I want to shoot like Kobe.’ So I started watching videos of him for hours a day in how he got his stroke down and all the little things that went into his shot,” Watson said. “Like, he would shoot constantly for hours and hours every single day, and he would shoot over guys like it was nothing.

“So I tried to do the same thing, and now I don’t even have to think about my shot as much either. It just comes to me, and it’s helped my game completely overall.”

Watson began to develop a knack for downtown jumpers towards the end of her freshman year at Nutley. That’s when her AAU coach with the NJ Panthers, John Griff, moved Watson exclusively to the wing, unleashing her athleticism and natural talent. Watson said Griff pushed her, molded her, while always demanding a little bit extra.

By the time Watson began her sophomore year, she was just shy of a deadeye marksman. She ended up averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, while guiding her squad to the North 2, Group 3 State Sectional Championship game. It was only the second time in school history the Raiders had reached the finals.

Watson proceeded to put on a career-defining show in the title game against West Morris Central, dropping 39 points; nabbing 12 rebounds; and, get this, blocking 11 shots. Nutley lost the game, 63-60, but Watson’s performance drew headlines in many of the local papers anyway.

“I thought it was the best game any kid had ever played in this state in a tournament,” Colley said, “and, if you look at the numbers, it really was statistics wise.”

After the game, though, all the Raiders could think about was how they’d fallen short.

Until Watson picked them all back up again.

“So we’re out to eat at Applebee’s after the game, and it’s like 11 o’clock at night,” Mitchow explained. “And Blair says, ‘Hey, Coach, can I call the principal and see if we can come in for a half a day tomorrow since we went to finals? And she actually got the principal on the phone … and got him to postpone [school] so the [team] could come in late. It was pretty crazy -- and pretty awesome (laughs).

“She’s a very quiet person on the court, but off the court she’s got a great sense of humor and tries to make people laugh. Everyone loves her.”

Said Watson: “Oh, I love to joke around and have fun. I have my close group of friends, but I definitely like being around people and just having fun.”

That 2014 title game was pretty fun too, despite the loss. Colley and Mitchow were both in awe of Watson’s second-half performance.

“She just went off, and she was being double teamed and everything. She was going crazy,” Mitchow said. “That was the point when we kind of knew she was going to be one of the best players around. That was her coming out. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl?’ after that.”

And when he says “everyone,” he means everyone. We’re talking women’s college basketball royalty from up and down the East Coast. Mitchow said pretty much every school this side of the Mississippi, except Connecticut, expressed interest, many of them offering firm scholarships.

“It was last summer in [AAU ball], and there were all these coaches surrounding our court. Seeing all of them there, it kind of put it in my mind that, OK, I’m one of the top players. This is real. All these people want to see me,” Watson said. “It’s kind of crazy. I came from someone who didn’t start [basketball] until fifth grade, to being a center my first few years, to being one of the top guards and 3-point shooters out there. It’s really crazy to think about.”

One of those coaches who witnessed Watson’s summer league games was Maryland’s Brenda Frese. Mitchow said Frese took an immediate liking to his 6-1 guard, and then proceeded to put on the full-court recruiting press.

The Nutley headman said Frese personally reached out and visited Watson and her family, which left a distinct impression considering most programs initially send their assistants.

“I wanted to play for somebody like Coach Frese,” said Watson, who credited her family with helping her reach this point, noting how ‘we share all of my moments together.’ “I wanted the chance to go to a Final Four, and just seeing how she treats her players, and how she turns them into pros – that’s what I want. The WNBA, that’s definitely a goal of mine. And with hard work and Coach Frese’s coaching, I believe I can get there.”

No one’s about to doubt Watson’s drive at this stage. Mitchow called her the “total package,” flashing the ability to penetrate, score inside, block shots, rebound, play at or above the rim, and, of course, shoot the 3. He did mention, however, that she shies away from contact, relying on her jump shot a bit too much, while Watson acknowledged her ball-handling and defense could use work too.

“But she has all the physical tools to make basketball a profession,” Mitchow said. “She can definitely have this as a career.”

If so, it’ll be that stroke, that self-made 3-point stroke, that will take her there.

Before every game, Watson performs the same routine: shootaround, layups, free throws, locker room meditation, mandatory best friend hug, and then…

“Right when the buzzer sounds, I’ll shoot one more 3,” Watson said. “And it usually goes in. That’s when I know I’m ready.”

Surely, the Terps are ready too.

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