Tennessee basketball isn't known for filling NBA rosters with All-Stars...or even bench players. In fact, only five players have successfully made the jump from Knoxville to draft day in 20 years. Last season, freshman Tobias Harris was the program's first draftee since 2002.
But Thursday night in Chicago, undrafted former Vol CJ Watson took the daunting task of replacing the injured and struggling Derek Rose by draining a game tying three with 2.2 seconds to set up an overtime victory the league leading Bulls over the Heat. The win was Chicago’s second straight over Miami and pushed LeBron and company four games back with just seven games left.
The game wasn't Watson's highest scoring performance as a pro nor did the shot come in a game seven, or even a game one. It was, however, the first time a Tennessee grad not named Peyton or Summit was the lead on nearly every major sports site in the country in a long, long time.
Overshadowed by the success of Pat Summit and the women’s program, men's basketball in Knoxville has spent two decades hanging its hat on Allan Houston as its lone pro player of significance. Even Tennessee legends Chris Lofton and Wayne Chisom failed to reach basketball’s highest level, joining the long list of former Vols who’ve either joined teams overseas or slipped into anonymity.
Similarly, Watson began his professional career as an undrafted free agent in 2006 and joined teams in Italy and Greece before being chosen in the NBA D-league draft. But unlike other former Vols, Watson excelled with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers by averaging 26.4 PPG with just over five assists and five rebounds a game. His high numbers earned him a spot with Golden State, where he scored a career high 40 points against Sacramento on February 17, 2010.
But even that performance couldn’t top Thursday night. Considering the playoff implications, Watson’s clutch shooting and seamless transition to replace the reigning league MVP will live as a seminal moment of the Bulls’ season and shed light on a Tennessee program looking to break through for national attention. With conference rival Kentucky bringing in another class of future pros next season, the Vols can use all the NBA attention they can get.