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Don’t look now, but Missouri might pry Rocket Watts out of Michigan

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Quietly, the Tigers maneuvered their way into the race for one of the nation’s best pure scorers and scored an official visit.

FloSports: FloHoops EYBL Session 4 Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, Rocket Watts’ job description was brief: spot up.

Back then, Watts only stood 5-foot-9 and was still in the midst of transitioning from football — where he picked up his distinctive moniker — and getting his bearings on the hardwood. At Detroit’s Allen Academy, a pair of future mid-major signees in point guard Jason Williams and Danny Pippen served as veteran buffers.

“Rocket didn’t have to do much,” said then-Allen coach Craig Covington Jr. “All he had to do was catch the ball and score it wherever he was at.”

Today, Covington, who brought Watts along with him to Old Redford Academy, assigns considerably more tasks to his lead guard.

Watts cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s best pure scorers by finishing third in Nike’s EYBL with 24.6 points per game. The 6-foot-2, 176-pound guard poses a danger on the catch or putting the ball on the floor, especially side pick-and-rolls, and is equally savvy as a distributor.

Rocket Watts | Statistics

PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3P% eFG% TS% ORTG
PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3P% eFG% TS% ORTG
23.7 3.6 3.5 1.6 0.1 42.8 82.6 36.7 53.2 58.5 115.3
Open Look Analytics

So it comes as little surprise that Watts is a coveted commodity among the sport’s upper crust. When that’s the case, it’s often assumed that luring a Michigan prospect past the state line is a fool’s errand.

But that’s where Watts’ courtship gets interesting. Michigan, which deemed an early frontrunner, was nixed when the guard unveiled his list of nine finalists. And Michigan State? The Spartans and coach Tom Izzo have hosted Watts six times in East Lansing. Yet Sparty hasn’t been bestowed an official visit.

Instead, Watts seems poised to venture far from home.

On Sunday evening, we learned Louisville, Florida State and, indeed, Missouri would receive official visits. Over the last week, Mizzou’s been buoyed by learning three of its prime targets — Watts, E.J. Liddell, and Tray Jackson — will come to Columbia next month.

Securing a commitment after would serve as a breakthrough for coach Cuonzo Martin and assistant coach Cornell Mann in Michigan. Their pitch has been equally straightforward.

“Their main thing is they want him to be who is,” Covington said. “They want him to be the scorer that he is.”

A volume shooter?

Early on July 15, a flurry of tweets ferried word of Watts turning the sparely filled gym at Westside High School into a microwave.

In an otherwise nondescript pool game for the Peach Invitational Tournament, an event for EYBL programs that don’t qualify for the more illustrious Peach Jam, Watts racked up 43 points against to help The Family advance in bracket play.

The scoring tally alone was enough to draw attention. Glancing at the box score, though, revealed how easy Watts, who went 16-for-24 from the floor in front of Izzo, Martin and Louisville’s Chris Mack, made it all look. The highlights uploaded to YouTube didn’t do anything to make it appear anything other than casual.

Because of the raw totals, you might be tempted to affix Watts with the label of a volume shooter.

In the EYBL, his usage rate (34.6 percent) ranked third among prospects playing more than 70 percent of minutes, according to data compiled by Open Look Analytics. A heavy workload? Sure. However, Watts’s offensive rating (115.3) hints that his style was far from inefficient.

Heavy Lifting | Class of 2019 Prospects

Player PPG RPG APG BlkPG StlPG % Min ORTG Usage Rt EFG% TS% FG% 3PT% FT%
Player PPG RPG APG BlkPG StlPG % Min ORTG Usage Rt EFG% TS% FG% 3PT% FT%
Chris Ledlum 19.9 6.8 1 0.3 0.6 79.20% 122.4 33.80% 59.20% 61.80% 53.80% 46.50% 61.40%
Elijah Pepper 19 5 2.5 0.3 1.9 83.60% 116.9 33.20% 55.90% 58.80% 47.30% 39.60% 76.50%
Cole Anthony 26.8 8.5 3.8 0.5 1.7 92.30% 116.7 38.50% 51.50% 60.60% 44.10% 40.90% 89.20%
James Bishop 22.8 2.7 2.4 0.1 1.5 85.50% 116.6 34.40% 57.40% 61.00% 47.10% 40.60% 86.70%
Quincy Guerrier 24.3 7 0.8 0.3 0.4 89.10% 115.3 36.60% 55.30% 57.10% 46.50% 34.90% 59.40%
Rocket Watts 23.7 3.6 3.5 0.1 1.6 90.60% 115.3 34.60% 53.20% 58.50% 42.80% 36.70% 82.60%
Juwan Gary 19.2 5.6 0.9 0.8 1.4 78.80% 113.8 32.80% 47.00% 50.70% 42.80% 26.40% 69.30%
Jalen Wilson 19.2 6.4 2.1 0.1 0.5 87.90% 110.6 33.90% 49.40% 52.80% 43.30% 29.10% 63.60%
Kahlil Whitney 21.2 7.2 1.5 0.6 0.7 84.80% 100.6 33.00% 53.90% 55.60% 48.00% 38.00% 65.80%
Jaiden Delaire 16.8 5.4 1.6 0.8 0.5 77.10% 95.2 35.00% 51.00% 55.20% 46.70% 30.00% 73.00%
Open Look Analytics

“It might look like he’s a volume shooter, but he’s a competitive guy and wants to win,” Covington said. “Sometimes when you have a guy like that, he’s also got the confidence of his teammates to make those shots.”

He can also get looks in just about any fashion he pleases, whether it’s playing on the wing or acting as the primary initiator of the offense.

At times, The Family tasked Jalen Terry with running show. On those possessions, Watts functioned as a floor-spacer, often setting up shop deep in the corner for spot-up looks. With the ball in his hands, Watts punished defenders who sagged off or were slow to match up by firing pull-up 3-pointers early in the clock. Regardless of the situation, his shooting mechanics — a high catch, solid base, quick release, fluid finish — were consistent en route to shooting 37 percent from behind the arc.

“Now with the ball in his hands a lot more, he’s able to pull up,” Covington said. “He’s also gotten better at reading screens and reading defenses. That lets him know when to use the jumper or when to use the drive-by.”

No matter what film you watch from this summer or from his junior season at Old Redford, Watts makes the right reads when operating in pick-and-rolls. Opponents typically chose containment as a strategy, dropping the help defender back to head off Watts’ path to the paint. Rather than force a contested look at the rim, Watts smoothly throttled down and used a right-handed floater. Or, if his defender is scrambling to recover, he may punch the gas again utilize a runner over the outstretched hand of a big.

Watts’ chemistry with combo forward Isaiah Jackson, a top-20 prospect in 2020 who is a teammate with The Family and Old Redford, is evident. A staple of Covington’s offense is to clear out the weakside and let the duo go to work, with Watts sliding pinpoint pocket passes off to his long-limbed partner in crime.

“If you’ve seen Isaiah, once he gets the ball with a foot of the paint, he’s dunking it,” Covington said. “A lot of teams will wind up switching that, and Rocket will take advantage of it any time he sees that big on him. If they hesitate, he’s going to read a pocket pass or just lob it to the basket.”

Over the course of the grassroots season, Jackson, who has been billed as an elite rim protector but is raw offensively, showed newfound prowess at hitting mid-range jumpers.

“We can pick and pop it,” Covington said. “That just puts you at the mercy of Rocket with the ball in his hands. It just comes down to a decision and what he wants to do and what they (opponents) are willing to live with.”

As Watts figured out what worked best for him, Covington supplemented these lessons with clips compiled from YouTube. They wanted to digest how Kyrie Irving handled in confined space, how Stephen Curry creates airspace to rise and fire and how Damian Lillard putting defenders on their heels before pulling up.

“We put together packages for him to watch,” Covington said. “He just ate them up.”

‘Corn’s been here’

Curious how Missouri wound up scoring the chance to host Watts on September 22, a weekend that should be raucous at Faurot Field with Georgia in town?

The fact Cornell Mann, who spent a season on coach Greg Kampe’s staff at Oakland, was one of the earliest to recruit Watts helps. Plus, Mann and Covington have known each other for more than three decades going back to the early ‘90s, when their rival high schools squared off. And Mann’s son, Maliq Carr, also happens to be on The Family’s roster.

“Corn’s been here,” Covington said. “He’s seen him plenty of times.”

Those ties helped convince Watts to take an unofficial visit to Columbia last autumn ahead of the Tigers season opener against Iowa State, a trek where he took in a Mizzou practice and sat down with Cuonzo Martin. That meeting, Covington said, solidified MU as a contender.

“He never once talked about basketball or what he can do for Rocket through basketball,” Covington said. “He talked about what he could do for him as a far as life, life after basketball, as far as getting a degree. As a young black man coming from the inner city of Detroit, sometimes it’s good to hear somebody who’s from the same type of environment.”

State of Play | Missouri’s Remaining 2019 Targets by Position

Point Guard Combo Guard Wing Combo Forward Post
Point Guard Combo Guard Wing Combo Forward Post
Rocket Watts Mario McKinney Jr. Isiaih Mosley E.J. Liddell Balsa Koprivica
Yuri Collins Harlond Beverly Antavion Collum Tray Jackson
Jalen Hil Khalid Thomas
Christian Braun

Taking part in FIBA’s U18 Americas Championship, plus the CP3 Elite Guard Camp and Nike Skills Academy this month, served to open Watts up to the idea of heading out of state.

“It’s just broadened his horizons,” Covington said. “He realizes that get what you want, sometimes you have to step out of the box.”

Reeling in Watts, though, would supply Mizzou’s roster with a talent capable of conjuring offense from thin air. It’s obvious that Mizzou would pitch him on spending prolonged stretches with the ball in his hands — even if MU’s offense utilizes multiple ball handlers. “Corn knows what to do with a point guard,” Covington said. “Rocket feels comfortable with Corn.”

It also offers a crucial distinction between Watts and Mario McKinney Jr., another of the prospects targeted early in the cycle by MU’s staff.

Right now, McKinney would likely play off the ball in college, easing any potential concerns about overlap in skills.

(Meanwhile, the odds seem remote that Missouri will be a serious contender for Harlond Beverly, another combo guard and a top-60 prospect who hails from the Motor City. “I’d say he’s likely going to end up a Baylor or Xavier,” a source with knowledge Beverly’s recruitment told Rock M Nation last week.)

Landing Watts alone would be a boon. Yet MU also appears well positioned to add combo forward Tray Jackson, who’s rapidly ascended recruiting rankings this summer, to a blockbuster class. On Monday, we learned that Jackson, who made an unofficial visit to Columbia in early June, will be on campus the same weekend as Watts.

“Unless Tray gets new schools to turn his head, I think it’s a two-horse race between Mizzou and Xavier,” the source said.

Three decades ago, assistant coach Rich Daly earned the now dubious moniker of Dr. Detroit after mining Motown’s gyms to woo seven players to Columbia. Just under two decades ago, Quin Snyder dipped a ladle back into the city’s Public School League and scooped out Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson.

“Missouri’s had players from Detroit who have thrived,” Covington said.

Pulling down pledges from Watts and Jackson would also mark another foray into Detroit.