You could hear it in Trendon Watford’s voice in his press conference the morning after he signed his newly-inked, four-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. The emotion and celebration in sharing that news with family had left the undrafted rookie with a more hoarse tone than usual. Yet even so, the goals and ideas Watford brought forth were spoken of with crystal clear intent: bringing energy to the team, providing an edge, and making winning plays.
Looking back over Watford’s 2021-22 campaign, both his tape and raw numbers suggest that he put himself on the right track for each of those three. Wins proved particularly difficult to come by, especially over the second half of the season, as the Blazers limped to a 7-28 finish over their final 35 games. It did, however, provide them a chance to discover a hidden gem in Watford, one that Blazers analysts and NBA experts alike view as a building block going forward. Here’s a look at Watford’s contributions from 2021-22:
Per Game Statistics:
▪ 7.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game in 18.1 minutes
▪ 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game in 25.2 minutes (a 25-game stretch from Jan. 30 to Mar. 26)
Advanced + On-Off Statistics:
▪ 59.0 true shooting percentage, 17.6 usage percentage, -18.7 on-court, -12.6 on-off swing
For most rookies — and especially those that are undrafted — there’s a steep learning curve in terms of understanding which of their traits from college will translate best to the professional game. To his credit, Watford already has an innate feel for how to get to his spots and what works best. If you only watched five minutes of Watford’s game, it’s likely his soft touch floater would be the first skill that stands out.
As noted in that aforementioned Lowe article, it’s already become a staple of his game. Watford’s leaned into this skill already; per Cleaning the Glass, he ranks among the 86th percentile in terms of how frequently he attacks that 4-to-14 feet away range. Just as noteworthy, he hit on nearly half of said attempts, a rock-solid 36-of-78 (46.2 percent), which put him in the 69th percentile.
The first thing that jumps out with Watford’s 2021-22 game is how adept he is getting to his floater.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) May 5, 2022
Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s in the 86th percentile from that 4-to-14” range, and he nearly hit half — 36-of-78, 46.1%.
The floater + his quick shot-fake are legit to-go moves. pic.twitter.com/g0WxaGwmAn
As Watford’s skills became more noteworthy, perhaps on a scouting report, he showed that he could pivot and adjust, mixing in more up-fakes and shot fakes into those floaters, catching even some of the NBA’s premier interior defenders off-balanced before lofting in those shots, as seen in the video above.
And speaking of pivoting, Watford’s tape showcases a player able and willing to adjust to different situations. He spent 69 percent of his time last year as a small ball “5,” and the other 31 percent at power forward according to Basketball Reference. Though, if opposing bigs got too lax, the former LSU Tiger was quick to take a rebound coast-to-coast, catch them on their heels, and use a crafty finish at the rim.
In a college Q&A, he noted a few of his favorite players — Paul George and Kevin Durant — and there are some similarities in how he attacks a defender’s body to get to the rim and finish. From 16 feet and within, Watford shot 58.7 percent on 225 attempts, per NBA.com. To double down on that: 206 different players took at least 60 transition shots this regular season; volume in mind, he took the No. 13 spot on that list of 206 in field goal percentage and No. 33 in eFG percentage. There are some clips in that above tweet, for those interested.
It’s similar to a wide receiver in the NFL, slowing down the release of his route in order to let a defense settle, and sneaking into an unoccupied zone once attention is diverted. Watford knows how to fill lanes expertly, sneak into plays late, and finish at the rim.
Outside of that, Watford profiles as a burgeoning facilitator, capable of looking off defenders and setting up teammates. The majority of his assists come through either Horns sets in the dribble handoff-based offense the Blazers utilized a ton of over the second half of the year, hitting shooters on the weak side, or out in transition.
This gets into the “winning play” mentality Watford brings up. Without the abundance of pure shot creators that the Blazers have grown accustomed to, it took a more concerted effort to find open shots. According to BBallIndex’s tracking, Watford was a 98th percentile cutter — this wouldn’t be a great rock, paper, scissors team — and though he didn’t score at that same frequency, it means Watford can create multiple different avenues for himself to contribute.
On the less glamorous side of the ball, Watford’s numbers paint the picture of a player with above-average traits and potential, depending on where you look. As noted, at 6-foot-9, there are going to be nights where he gives up some size. Players shot 2.2 percent better than average against his defense. Though, nearly every metric respects his hustle and effort in rim deterrence. To illustrate: his numbers in contesting rim shots (7.5 per 75 possessions) are elite, even if said players score.
Watching Watford play, it’s clear that head coach Chauncey Billups has some trust in Watford’s ability to compete against multiple different positions on defense. Using BBallIndex metric, he’s in the 93rd percentile in defensive positional versatility. Here’s a personal favorite from this past year, where he switches onto Trae Young, an offensive wizard in the pick-and-roll, and he uses competitive grit and length to match the two-time All-Star step-for-step. (Ignore how this play ends, that’s not the point!) This much has been evident, even dating back to his noteworthy Summer League play.
No player is perfect, though, and it’s likely that Watford already knows what minor steps he can take to improve. The 3-pointers took a step back from his bucket-filled days at LSU with Cam Thomas and Javonte Smart; he shot just 9-of-38 from the field from deep in 2021-22. There’s also the occasional lapse or miss of any easy layup at the rim, though it’s likely all is forgiven since he’s in Year One.
Perhaps the biggest drawback would be in the fouling issue. Watford can draw fouls at a veteran rate, but he can dish them out, too. In his defense, the Blazers as a team struggled to, well, defend without fouling; they had the fourth-highest rate all season, and were No. 1 in fouls committed from All-Star break on. Among the 305 players to play half the season and log at least 800 minutes, the talented Blazers big ranked 13th in fouls per minute.
That shouldn’t take away from what proved to be a storybook season for Watford. Circumstances weren’t pretty for the Blazers, it did allow them to uncover a diamond-in-the-rough-type player whose work made him a part of their long-term plans.
Watford proved to be a hidden ace for the Blazers, and, if the front office plays their deck of cards right this summer, it could be positioned to turn some of his “winning plays” into, well, actual wins.