Gonzaga vs Washington: Breaking Down Nolan Hickman and Anton Watson


Photo credit: Robert Johnson/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Gonzaga’s 16 game winning streak against the PAC-12 ended against Washington. The two main NBA prospects in this game, Nolan Hickman and Anton Watson of Gonzaga, had games that were worth breaking down, given that both prospects are under the radar value plays on draft night.

Nolan Hickman finished the game with 17 points on 7-15 shooting, showcasing strong off-ball scoring ability including using his lethal floater off of off-ball actions, and utilizing his good shooting touch to spot up from deep. For his first two years at Gonzaga, his big criticism was that he had played too passively for too often. However, early in the season he has become more assertive offensively and more willing to showcase his offensive talent. In the past, he almost looked scared to make a mistake or miss shots, but Saturday he played with less internal micromanagement and more freedom. However, with all of his points coming in the first 25 minutes of the game, in a close game like this on the road I would have liked to see him take over a bit more instead of deferring to teammates when he had favorable matchups. While it is good to see Hickman make the passes to get his teammates good shots, he needs to start being comfortable enough in clutch situations to take and make go-ahead shots, even if they aren’t wide open.

Defensively, while Hickman has good footspeed and is a capable point of attack defender on the perimeter and against drives, he has technique concerns that need to be ironed out before making the jump to the NBA. Not only is he often out of stance (more concerning is that the most notable example of this came on one of the most crucial defensive possessions in the last 5 minutes), but he also is reckless in closing out, making him prone to fouling the shooter. Every NBA coach will lose trust in his defenders if they are unable to cleanly contest 3 point shots, especially in an era that emphasizes jump shooting.

Overall, Hickman still shows lots of promise, taking a step forward offensively with intelligent shot selection but needs to channel a more controlled ‘me-first’ mentality when appropriate, but more importantly he needs to maximize his defense. This is easily achievable if he can work at fixing those concerns that scouts are sure to share with myself.

The other Gonzaga Bulldog that stands out as an NBA prospect is Anton Watson, who has a good chance to flirt with being a first round pick. An impactful 5th year senior who will be 24 on opening night, Watson is an exception to the narrative of “old players have less value on draft night.” His ability to be a unique connector, as I wrote in my Gonzaga-USC breakdown, makes him a more ‘likable’ fifth year senior than most. Watson has taken a leap in his final year of college eligibility, including a game against UCLA that he went 14/15 in for 32 points. 

Against Washington, Watson showcased passing, flash scoring, and being able to be a menace on the defensive end, forcing 5 steals. Overall, he finished this game with 13 points on 4-12 shooting, 13 rebounds, 1 assist, 5 steals, 1 block, and 3 turnovers as he played every minute of the game.

Watson is an ideal connector, improving his jump shot to start the year, which is the most necessary skill in his game translating to the NBA, so that he can maximize his other skills. Defensively, Watson projects to be versatile and is effective by defending without fouling. While he’s somewhat undersized as a likely power forward, his impact on winning is similar to other undersized forwards in the past, such as Grant Williams (who developed a high level 3 point shot) and others.

As a scorer, Watson’s growing jump shot is key, but he has confidence and a strong ability to score out of flashes near the free throw line, which is often a result of push shots and floaters. These shots indicate shooting touch, given that he can softly aim his shot from the in-between areas of the floor. In addition to scoring, Watson has instinctual passing that allows him to make quick and correct reads, both in transition and in the half-court. These traits all make Watson a unique connector, providing a bit of everything without any one high-level skill at an awkward size. In today’s game that maximizes tweeners, Watson has a strong chance of fitting in the NBA on any team.