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Trendon Watford Slowly Carving Out Role With Blazers

The rookie has improved tremendously in his first season.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers rookie forward Trendon Watford is unexpectedly putting together a solid debut season.

His numbers aren’t eye-popping (4.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.0 assists per game), but Watford has provided valuable, consistent play for a thin Blazers roster. During a season which has crumbled into a chase for ping pong balls, the underdog story and progression of an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract is one of Portland’s most exciting developments.

In an extensive, revealing piece for The Athletic, writer Jason Quick chronicled Watford’s journey to becoming an NBA player and two moments that defined his path.

It’s a classic basketball cliche, but in Watford’s case it rings true: His impact shows beyond the box score. After not receiving any minutes at the start of the season, Watford has become an effective rotation player for head coach Chauncey Billups because of his high basketball IQ.

Watford was inactive for 18 of the Blazers’ first 20 games, but around Thanksgiving started getting spot duty. In 2022, he has played in 22 consecutive games, during which he has averaged 5.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 15.3 minutes a game.

“He’s a plug-and-play guy, where you can put him in so many places,” Billups said. “He can do so many things because of his feel, and I don’t have to teach him, he just knows. And those things are quantified in numbers, or analytics, but those things are big. Big.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Watford’s cerebral game was forged by intense one-on-one battles with his older brother, Christian. Christian, who is nine years older than Trendon, played four seasons at the University of Indiana from 2009 to 2013. You may recognize him from this iconic shot he hit against No. 1 Kentucky in 2011.

Along with the competition and mentorship Christian provided, his time at Indiana also gave his younger brother locker room access for every pregame, halftime, and postgame speech from Indiana coach Tom Crean. It was four years of exclusive insight into elite basketball.

In December of 2011, with 11-year-old Trendon in the stands wearing his brother’s red No. 2 Indiana jersey, Christian hit what is now called “The Wat Shot” — a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat No. 1 Kentucky. It was the only loss of the season for a Kentucky team that featured Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. The shot, and the pandemonium that followed, was named the “Play of the Year” at the 2012 ESPYs.

“Those were some of the greatest times of my life,” Trendon said. “As a kid, to have your brother be in the spotlight, and everybody knew I was Christian’s younger brother … I was in the locker room, in practices, had the freedom to be with all the players. It put the competitive drive in me. Seeing it first hand, I wanted to be on that stage. I wanted to be like my brother and be on that platform … and bigger. I think it has a lot to do with who I am today as a player.”

Watford’s relationship with his brother isn’t the only one that built him into the player he is today. Quick’s piece goes into depth about his close relationship with his uncle Stanley Glover. Known for his “great spirit,” Glover was another mentor in Watford’s life, pushing him to reach his basketball potential. Glover, 63, died in 2020 when Watford was a sophomore at LSU.

At the funeral, Watford made a promise to his late uncle — who went by the nickname “Uncle Kidd” — that still motivates him.

With tears coming down his face, Trendon saw his uncle, his “second brother,” and thought about how much he pushed him, motivated him, supported him.

“I just remember looking at him in the casket and telling him, ‘I’m going to make this work,”’ Trendon said.

Ernest was next to his youngest son and said he will never forget the moment.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna make it, Kidd. I’m going to do it for you, Kidd. I’m going to make this work,”’ Ernest said.

On NBA Draft Night 2021, however, it appeared Watford’s NBA dream might not work out. He averaged 16.3 points and 7.9 rebounds during his sophomore season at LSU and expected to be a sure-fire second round pick. So at his family’s watch party, Watford was shaken when he didn’t hear his name announced.

With two final draft spots available, the Brooklyn Nets called and offered to draft Watford, with contingencies. Christian advised Trendon that he should look for a better opportunity.

When the 60th and final pick was made, and his name wasn’t called, Trendon couldn’t contain his emotion. He broke down and cried. His brother put his arm around him and whispered into his ear. Told him he believed in him. He told him he would get his chance to prove people wrong. And he told him — promised him — he would be there to help him get to the NBA.

Moments later, with Watford still processing his emotions, he got a call about an opportunity he was willing to take.

As the two brothers sorted through their sadness and anger, Trendon’s phone rang. On the other line was Chauncey Billups, head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers, a team that had Watford on their radar for two years, wanted him to sign a two-way contract.

It’s a call that Billups won’t forget for two reasons: it was his first official call as head coach of the Blazers. And the prospect kept promising him the same thing. Over and over.

“He kept telling me that I wouldn’t regret it, that he was going to come here and work his butt off,” Billups said. “And I was there on the other line listening, and I just loved it. He kept saying it, ‘You won’t regret it.’ And you know what? He has done just that. He really has. I’m really happy for him.”

Quick wrote that the promises Watford made to his late uncle and Coach Billups are the two driving motivators behind his career. So far, the undrafted rookie has been following through on his word to “make it work.”