A thirty-second sequence in the second half of Saturday’s Harvard-BU game neatly encapsulated Terriers point guard Maurice Watson, Jr.’s offensive style, and the fear he causes in opposing defenders. After a Harvard steal, Watson tracked back in transition to challenge a Siyani Chambers layup at the rim. But by the time Dom Morris collected the loose rebound, Watson was somehow already at halfcourt again, calling for the ball; he dribbled into the lane, turned around and found John Papale for a wide-open three (which rimmed out). On the next possession, the Terriers forced a turnover, and once again Watson raced ahead with the ball — until Siyani Chambers gave an intentional foul at halfcourt, knowing better than to try defending Watson on a fast break.
Those two plays were Watson incarnate: No matter how the Terriers gain possession, Watson wants to push forward as quickly as possible. He has excellent vision and passing ability, but what makes him so hard to defend is his speed — by the time you try to set up a defensive scheme to stop him, Watson has already found an open shooter, and his pass is already in the air.
Watson had a season-high eight assists Saturday, six of which came within 10 seconds of BU gaining possession. And that’s just the surface of Watson’s impact on BU’s offense. Not only did he score 14 points of his own, but two other passes led directly to free throws, and he had at least two “hockey assists” (where his pass led to a teammate’s assist). On a night when the Terriers were struggling to make shots, Watson created plenty of opportunities:
If BU had made more open shots — particularly from outside, where the hosts’ 6-for-24 performance continued a cold start to the season — Watson’s assist total would have been in double digits. “I think right now, we have to keep shooting, and not let it become mental,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “Hopefully we start making more of them.”
When Watson was off the court, BU struggled on offense, shooting 3-for-12 and scoring just 10 points on 15 possessions (compared to 58 on 57 with Watson). Even excluding tactical offense-defense substitutions at the end of regulation, the Terriers were outscored 18-10 with their point guard on the bench. When Watson was playing, he created most of BU’s offense — of the hosts’ 22 field goals with Watson on the floor, the sophomore scored or assisted 15.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Watson has an assist rate of 44.2% for the season, which ranks fourth in Division I. This is no fluke: As a freshman, Watson’s 39% assist rate ranked 19th nationally; he had at least three assists in all 30 games, including a 13-dime masterpiece at Binghamton.
Where Watson has improved as a sophomore is his scoring. Aside from a Thanksgiving-weekend clunker at UC Irvine, Watson has netted at least 13 points every game, and the 5-10 guard has made 61 percent of his two-point shots, mostly at the rim. “He’s a terrific finisher. He’s a guy that can make shots over bigger players, using different floaters, runners high off the board,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “You have to have help [defense] — it’s not a one-on-one situation with that kid.”
In part, this scoring improvement has come because Watson is such a passing threat, keeping opposing defenses out of Watson’s driving lanes. In Saturday’s postgame press conference, Watson said he wasn’t initially looking to score as he drove up the court on BU’s final possession of regulation. He has a step on Siyani Chambers the whole way up the floor, but as Watson crosses halfcourt, Kyle Casey is in a position to cut off his path to the hoop:
Screencaps via the Patriot League Network
But as Watson keeps sprinting ahead, Casey moves out of his way, and it’s not hard to see why — Travis Robinson, a 38 percent three-point shooter last season, is wide open on the left wing:
“I initially was just trying to find D.J. [Irving], but after I did a little in-and-out, I saw Kyle Casey, and he didn’t step up to me,” Watson said. “Then he moved, and I saw a clear path, so I just went aggressively to the hole. I knew a bigger defender, Moundou-Missi, was coming over, so I tried to put it out of his reach but still put that soft touch on it, so it could bounce off the glass and go in.”
Should Casey have stopped the ball first? Perhaps, but that would have likely meant an open three-pointer to win the game, instead of a layup over a help defender that could only tie it. That is the type of decision Watson forces defenders to make — and with his speed and tempo, they don’t have much time to think about it.