By Aaron Mansfield
Tony Watson was never known as the athlete who wanted to play professional basketball overseas. Sure, the University at Buffalo guard had moments he envisioned actualizing his hoop dreams, but he never seriously considered bouncing between continents a feasible career.
Something changed last winter when Mid-American Conference play started. Watson heated up and started taking over games. The smooth-stroking lefty averaged 26.3 points per game over a three-game stretch. Asked about his performance, then-head coach Reggie Witherspoon could only say, “holy smokes.” Scouts took notice, too.
Watson has signed with the German basketball team Bayer Giants to play Pro A basketball this season. Watson, who played four years with the Bulls and was a key contributor his final three, will leave for Germany Sept. 1.
“I talked to my coaches about it, and they all said I have the skills to play over there,” Watson, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, said via phone from Florida Wednesday afternoon. “Physically, I’m big enough to play, fast enough to play … After the season, a few agents hit me up right away and I was able to sign one who is a real professional, real honest guy. So I took the opportunity to go ahead and pursue my dreams.”
Steve James of SDJ Sports, Watson's agent, had three German teams interested in Watson, and he signed with the first one that offered a contract.
Watson averaged 11.3 points per game last year, second on UB only to first-team All-MAC forward Javon McCrea, and led his squad in minutes per game (34.9). The senior, one of two on the team and the only who received serious playing time, was called on to provide the leadership, and he answered the plea. Watson, known as the team's motivator with a tendency for slapping the floor on defense, averaged 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game while shooting a sizzling 42 percent from three-point range.
The Bulls’ season ended fittingly, with Watson weaving through traffic and driving coast-to-coast to lay in the final two points of his college career as the buzzer sounded on an 83-81 overtime loss to Kent State in the MAC Quarterfinals.
Watson played the 2 at UB, but he will go back to his original position of point guard for the duration of his professional career.
“My leadership is going to be magnified now because not only am I the point guard, but I’m one of the American basketball players on a European team,” Watson said. “They don’t necessarily look up to Americans, but they do kind of put those guys on a pedestal and expect certain things out of Americans. My leadership that I was able to acquire at UB, I’m going to take that over there with me.”
Watson is a coach-on-the-court type player with a high basketball IQ and the ability to catch fire at any time. Once he hits one three-pointer, the southpaw from West Palm Beach, Fla., has a propensity to pull up from 30 feet – and often knock it down.
At what turned out to be Witherspoon's final press conference as UB's head coach (first-year Athletic Director Danny White fired Witherspoon and hired Bobby Hurley in March), Witherspoon said of Watson: "He was really, really big for our team to have a chance to beat the teams in the top of the conference."
“This summer, I’m keeping my tools sharpened,” Watson said. “It’s all about what I can bring to that team ... I’ve been known to shoot the ball, so I’m keeping that sharp and working on my physical fitness, becoming stronger and more athletic.”
Signing with a professional team overseas is a daunting venture for any college athlete. Watson was thankful to have a mentor in the process: former UB assistant coach Turner Battle (now in the same position at Chattanooga), who played in Estonia and France before joining the NBDL and eventually the Buffalo Rapids of the American Basketball Association.
Watson also contacted several former UB teammates who play overseas now, including Titus Robinson (Australia) and Mitchell Watt (Israel), and said, “they gave me great advice.”
Several Bayer players have already reached out to Watson. The red-and-white Giants are considered among the most successful teams in German basketball history. They won the league championship last season.
Watson expects to start and he already knows who his backcourt mate will be: former Northern Iowa shooting guard Marc Sonnen, who averaged 10.5 points for the Panthers last season.
Watson missed time in his college career with ankle injuries, but he is hoping to have a lengthy pro career.
“As long as my body lasts and it’s worth it as far as bringing in enough money and isn’t causing too much wear and tear on my body, I’m going to continue to play,” Watson said. “The average professional basketball career is only three years, but I would like to play more than that. As long as it’s worth it, I’m going to continue pursuing my dream of playing professional basketball.”
Watson graduated with his management degree in May and interned his senior year in UB’s athletic department.
* * *
Click here to read Rodney McKissic's Feb. 22 article about Watson's hot streak.
* * *
Follow reporter Aaron Mansfield on Twitter @aaroncmansfield.
taggedBig 4 | University at Buffalo