There was a time when Lonnie Watson might’ve had second thoughts before going airborne for dunks.
This season, though, it’s easy to see that those days are long gone.
In early 2007, toward the end of his freshman year at Paso Robles High, Watson went up for a dunk in practice and his left knee gave out. Surgery followed, leaving three screws in place and forcing him to miss nearly all of his sophomore season rehabilitating.
Now a 6-foot-3, 185-pound shooting guard for the Bearcats, Watson is leading the PAC 7 in scoring at 18.2 points per game, and has made a habit of throwing down memorable slams in the process.
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“It’s totally not even in my head anymore,” he said of the knee injury.
Court sense catching up with athleticism
Watson, who first dunked in middle school, has a vertical jump of 35 inches off one step and 41 inches running. As a freshman, he cleared 6 feet in the high jump for the Bearcats track and field team. It has been as a senior, though, that Watson has truly shown himself to be a more complete player, Paso Robles coach Scott Larson said.
After the knee injury, he was forced to watch games from the bench, but put the time to use by observing teammates and opponents alike, mentally cataloguing their on-floor tendencies for later.
“That was a big gift in disguise,” Watson said.
In recent offseasons, Watson has played for the Bay Area Hoosiers and the San Joaquin Valley-based I Can All Stars — both summer club teams meant to acclimate high-schoolers to college-type regimens — whose rosters are formed after tryouts by scores of invited players.
In October of this past year, he was one of more than 100 to compete at the 1% Club Central Cali’s Finest Instructional Showcase in Clovis. The club published a post-event report listing Watson as one of the 10 best college basketball prospects there.
A handful of Big West and West Coast conference teams, including Long Beach State, UC Davis, UC Riverside, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, have expressed interest in him, Watson said.
“Athletically, and shooting the ball, I definitely think he could play at that level,” Larson said.
In December, both Watson and teammate Brandon Todd were all-tournament selections at the Atascadero Christmas Classic — after which 27th-year Greyhounds coach Jerry Tamelier called Watson “one of the better shooters that has played in this area for quite some time.”
As a junior, Watson was an all-PAC 7 first-team selection following an impressive individual scoring campaign that included a 32-point outburst in a win over Pioneer Valley that earned him CalHiSports.com State Stat Star of the Week honors. But more importantly, the Bearcats sputtered to a 10-15 finish (including a 3-9 mark in league play), as all but four of the defeats were suffered by 10 or fewer points.
Paso Robles looks to make up ground in race
This year, the Bearcats (10-7, 2-2) opened league play by falling to frontrunners Arroyo Grande (16-3, 5-0) and Righetti (15-3, 5-0). In their 58-49 loss to the Eagles, they trailed only 30-29 midway through the third quarter, and in the 72-56 defeat at the hands of the Warriors, were similarly unable to get over the hump, getting handled after cutting the deficit to 32-31 early in the second half.
“We’re going to have to really cut down on our turnovers, shoot the ball well and keep them off the glass,” Larson said of what it would take to contend.
Paso Robles hosts Nipomo (9-10, 2-3) at 7:30 tonight.
“This is the fun part of the season — competing for a championship,” Larson said.
Since the two opening losses, the Bearcats have edged Atascadero, which entered ranked No. 6 in Division IV-AA of the CIF-Southern Section, 49-46, and pulled out another nailbiter against San Luis Obispo, 48-47, as forward Cheyne Hayes hit a game-winner with 3.9 seconds remaining.
Those recent strides, Larson said, have come in part because other teams now might find it costly to overly focus on Watson with the team playing more cohesively. Todd (12.7 points per game) and Hayes (10.5) — also seniors — have provided most of the complementary scoring.
“They’re finally playing together, and it’s a lot more fun than it was earlier,” Larson said. “We finally have gotten to a point where we realize it takes a team to do things. You can get your stats and all that, but that’s pretty meaningless when it comes in a 3-9 league season (like a year ago).
“(Watson’s) numbers are good. They could be better, I’m sure, but our record is better,” he added. “There’s a direct correlation.”