Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
Christian Watford had a very memorable year in a very memorable Hooser basketball season, winning an ESPY for his game-winning shot against Kentucky, and provided the Hoosiers with some unexpected versatility on defense when he would surprisingly guard ball-handlers like Trey Burke for key stretches. The highest-rated recruit in Crean's first class is now a senior, so let's look at what we can expect this season from #2
Christian Watford, somewhat surprisingly, leads all returning point-scorers of Big Ten players. My memories of Christian as a freshman seem somewhat hazy at best, but they did involve him getting his shot blocked a fair amount. He also drew some fouls and led all other conference freshman that year in scoring and rebounding, as well as free-throw shooting percentage. My thought at the time was that he would be a decent candidate to win FOY (freshman of the year), but he really wasn't efficient enough at the time to deserve it. That said, I'm still peeved that DJ Richardson of Illinois walked away with that prize. Even so, "C-Wat" improved dramatically as a sophomore, raising his shooting percentages across the board (notably 84.3% on FTs and 38.1% on threes), raising his assist to turnover ratio from a horrid 1:4 to less awful 3:5 mark. His rebounding and block rates decreased a bit, but his steals jumped up a bit.
Coming into this past season, there was a lot of talk around here about defense and whether Watford wanted to put forth the effort to play it consistently. And the answer from last season was generally, yes, there was a noted improvement in his defensive demeanor. Statistically, his blocks and steals stayed at a steady rate from the previous season while his foul rate decreased, but his rebounding took a notable turn up. This improvement on rebounding is particularly notable for as we saw Christian's offensive role, and at times, his defensive role continue to shift outside to a more perimeter-oriented game (stunningly shooting more threes at a better rate, 43.7%), facilitated in part by the presence of Cody Zeller. However, particularly in the pre-conference games last season, when Cody would sit, we would see the Hoosier offense try to feed C-Wat in the paint, often successfully. The trials he had been through against Big Ten defenders had indeed made him a better finisher inside. Furthermore, in key games, we saw Christian step up into a leadership role, rallying the Hoosiers in NCAA games against VCU and Kentucky in the NCAA tournament with big plays. I was most impressed by C-Wat in the final Kentucky game, when just after he had blocked a shot, but the Wildcats had recovered and he was forced to foul, where Christian turned to Jordan Hulls and let him know that he had to collapse down into the paint in those loose balls situations and scrap for the ball. Christian not only understood what he had to do defensively to help win the game, but wasn't afraid to let his classmate know, too.
Last season, Christian's three-point shooting percentage (43.7) was significantly above his two-point shooting percentage (40.5), and he stayed steady on the stripe: slightly "down" to 81.5%. One thing I wasn't happy with from Watford, and noted in a conversation with Hoosierdaddynow about his relative lack of efficiency was his play in the Big Ten. To quote "Unfortunately, when you look at the Big Ten slate, CWat had a long stretch of bad games after he torched Michigan at home in mid-January. In fact, @MSU, Mich., @Wis., Illinois and Purdue are the only games he shot at or over .500 while he also posted 0-for-5 at Iowa, 0-for-7 at Purdue, 1-for-7 vs. Minnesota, 2-for-10 at PSU, etc. Additionally, he had 8 games in conference play where he posted 3 or more turnovers." I think the kind of shots that Watford hit against Michigan gave him and the team a false confidence in C-Wat's ability to be a bailout man. Too many off-the-dribble, fadeaway shots for my taste, when Christian can really make opponents pay when he's behind the arc or drawing contact inside and getting to the stripe, where he's as close to automatic as can be expected.
What can we expect from Christian this season? I don't think it's in the best interest of IU to have Watford as the first option, and the offense should be built around the hubs of Zeller, Hulls, and perhaps Ferrell to some extent. Watford needs to take good shots, bring his assist/turnover ratio at least level, and take advantage of mismatches when they present themselves. There's plenty of points there for the taking, he just needs to embrace the multiple niches that he can fill in the offense. More than anything, I want to see Christian continue to improve on defense. He's a good defensive rebounder, and used it to good effect when he grabbed a key rebound against OSU at home and hit two key free-throws to preserve the win. If he concentrates on team success, that will pave his way to playing in the pros much more than trying to showcase his game for scouts. CBS.com has him ranked as the #17 big man in the nation, which I don't think is really fair to put him above behemoths and beasts like Aaric Murray and Patric Young. It's nice to see him get some early acclaim, but Watford just plays a different role at Indiana. If he concentrates on putting forth 100% effort on both sides of the floor while staying team-oriented, it should also pay off royally for Indiana's season.