Peyton Watson's Crash Course in Stardom

The best high school junior 'hooper' in Cali may play in Bronny James' shadow, but this local talent is already being mentored by L.A.'s long line of sports greats to be next to join their ranks.
Joseph Bien-KahnContributor IIN LOS ANGELESJune 11, 2020

The day LeBron James enrolled his son, Bronny, at Sierra Canyon, the high school basketball team became the most famous on the planet. The elite private school's 42-acre campus in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley sits right next to Iverson Movie Ranch, where The Lone Ranger, Bonanza and countless other Westerns were filmed. Mater Dei, the other prep school powerhouse in the area, is just 20 minutes from an idyllic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, which cuts through the part of Newport Beach seen on The O.C.

To the outside world, those schools make sense here. They fit the vision of Los Angeles—the one projected onto a million big and little screens—that's infiltrated the collective imagination. This is the mansion-in-the-hills L.A. The bronzed-bodies-on-the-beach L.A. The gluten-free-influencer L.A. This is a city built on illusions, so perhaps it's only fair that people fall for the magic trick. And there is some truth to it. It's just not all it is. L.A. isn't a single thing. It's 10 million people; it's 4,000 square miles. It contains multitudes.

So while Sierra Canyon can boast of having six assistant coaches, 15 games on ESPN and a $7 million arena, and Mater Dei of more than 1,100 wins and 11 state titles in the past 39 years, it's also true that the best high school basketball player in California goes to school right between them.

Follow that coastal highway, which runs along the water from Malibu to Laguna Beach, and it veers inland as it cuts through Long Beach. By the time it passes Long Beach Polytechnic, the PCH is just a six-lane city boulevard. There isn't a rumor of the famous Southern California coastline, save for an occasional palm tree tucked between a McDonald's, two motor inns and a muffler shop.

But right by that deceptively named stretch of road, a 6'8" 17-year-old has made himself into the brightest star in L.A.'s 2021 class. And for a cadre of L.A. sports legends, the fact that the talented teenager has stayed at his local public school means something. They've become the village that's raising the city's rising generation of hoopers. And they're all convinced the next one up is Peyton Watson.


The gym at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, California, went abuzz as Kevin Durantin a red beanie and a baggy gray sweatshirttook a seat courtside. He'd arrived right after the tip of January's Real Run Winter Classic's main attraction: Arizona State-bound Josh Christopher's Mayfair versus Watson's Long Beach Poly.

A 215-pound senior, Christopher looked at ease with all eyes on him; the lanky Watson's poker face was harder to read. "Just seeing [Durant] at the game, bro, I was in awe," Watson says. "I was like, 'What, bro? This can't be real.' It gave me butterflies; I'm not even gonna lie."

Christopher was the gem of L.A.'s public school leagueQuavo and Ja Morant had already come to see him play, and a Sports Illustrated feature would drop on Christopher later that month. He and his running mate, 5-star point guard Dior Johnson (who has since transferred to Oak Hill Academy), could score at will, but Watson and his younger brother, Christian, babyfaced and just 6'0", weren't far behind.

Though Poly eventually lost in overtime, Peyton had proved to be his older rival's equal, offsetting Christopher's 32-point effort with 30 of his own. A few days after the game, Watson gained 1,000 new followers on his Instagram. By the time the season ended, the forward was 247Sports' top-ranked junior in the state.

That Christopher got offers from top schools such as Arizona State, Michigan and UCLA was more proof to Watson that he could realize his dreams while sticking at his local school. Sure, he wouldn't have as many eyes on him as Bronny James (Watson has 5.19 million fewer Instagram followers). And he wouldn't have the space he would while playing with a team full of 5-star recruits. But he also knows the box-and-ones and the traps he regularly faces are as much a boon as a burden.

Watson recalls a game last season in which a team wasn't double-teaming him: "They were whole-teaming me." He's getting a crash course in what it means to be the man. "I wanna show people that you don't have to go the route of going to a prep school," Watson says. "My goal, first and foremost, is to win. But also, I'd love to prove that I'm the greatest player to ever go to Poly."


On an overcast day at the end of the strangest April in memory, I park right next to Discovery Well Park, atop Signal Hill, near the GPS pin Watson's uncle, Brantley, dropped for me. Brantley's standing near the entrance of the park, leaning against a railing right at the crest of a steep grade. His nephews, who I'm here to meet, are nowhere in sight.

"I have them running this hill every other day," Brantley says. "Lunges, sprints, jumps."

Peyton's and Christian's heads come into view. The now-6'3" Christian is pushing to keep up with his brotherhalf a foot taller and ever so slightly more filled outwho's a couple of steps ahead.

"I gave them a few days off because it was so hot out. Now, they're out of shape," Brantley says, laughing. Then he shouts down at the brothers. "Come on! Gotta get those legs strong."

When they reach us, both brothers collapse against the railing. Peyton smiles and thanks me for driving down to meet him. Christian remains quiet, a bit skeptical. He's 15, a sophomore, 18 months younger than his brother, and he's not yet used to cameras in his face. His brother is the one who's gotten the headlines, who has the 10,200 Instagram followers, who the D-I coaches are at practice to recruit.

Damien Massey, a trainer who works with the Watson brothers, pulls up, and we head a few blocks west to Hill Street. He tosses Christian and Peyton each a basketball, and they start dribbling up the hill. Two dribbles right, between the legs, two dribbles left. Next, it's the same thing, but behind the back. Then, hesitations.

At the top of the hill, Peyton crouches over the basketball and hikes it to Christian. He runs a skinny post, and Christian hits him in stride. "You can tell they've been watching LeBron," Massey says, shaking his head.

The brothers are winded, but they still owe Massey a minute of jumping rope. Behind them, even in the fog, we can see most of Long Beach: the high school, the office buildings downtown and the smoke rising from the giant working port.

Massey points to a football field in the distance. For years, it had been a run-down dirt park dubbed the Dust Bowl. "Willie McGinest helped get that field renovated," he says. "Now, we run bleachers there at least once a week."

After games last year, McGinest, who was a two-sport star at Long Beach Poly before winning three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, started pulling Peyton aside for "Willie Talks"five-minute check-ins about mindset, mistakes and handling all the attention. As you'd expect, even in the crowded gyms, no one interrupted the 6'5", 265-pound former linebacker, and he never minced words. "He's not thin-skinned," McGinest says of Peyton. "He's at Poly; coaches and players don't hold back. It's always been real raw when it comes to sports and developing: telling the players what they need to hear and not what they want to hear."

Peyton Watson and his younger brother, Christian, dribbling in Signal Hill, where the brothers work out every other day.
Peyton Watson and his younger brother, Christian, dribbling in Signal Hill, where the brothers work out every other day.Joseph Bien-Kahn

"Willie's hilarious," Peyton says. "He keeps it real. He's like another father figure in my life. He's somebody I look up to."

McGinest tells me his daughter got him hooked on the show All-American and how he'd just finished an episode in which a character spoke about the need to keep the resourcesin this case, talented young athletesin the neighborhood. The parallel to Watson is clear.

"I commend his parents and Peyton for wanting to add to the richness of our tradition at Poly and keeping the resources right here—he is the resource," McGinest says. "Keep it rich and let everybody else figure it out. Because they can go buy whatever they need. We don't buy our athletes, and we don't bribe them with all the fancy trinkets. We just put them out, develop and love on them, and as a community, we raise them. And the output is what you've seen over the last five decades."

The list of athletic alumni is legendary. Poly has produced baseball stars Tony Gwynn and Chase Utley, as well as tennis legend Billie Jean King. But it's always been a football school first. McGinest, DeSean Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marcedes Lewis and many other NFL players all have walked the school's hallways. The basketball output is less prolific, highlighted by current Grizzlies big man Jordan Bell. But Watson hopes to change that.

More than any of the other major sports, high school basketball stars are actively recruited to private prep schools around the country. Sierra Canyon's two best playersBJ Boston and Ziaire Williamstransferred in the July before their senior years. Peyton's father, Ju, says they got offers from a few private schools around L.A. (and this year heard from Napa, California's Prolific Prep and Phoenix's Hillcrest Prep, both top-five programs in their respective states, per MaxPreps), but they never took them too seriously. "It's cool to go to Mater Dei, and it's cool to go to Sierra Canyon, but I always thought high school was about 'our neighborhood is better than your neighborhood,'" Ju says.

"What I was proud of," McGinest says, "was I went to a public school and we didn't have to do all that and we still kicked everybody's ass."


The Watson home sits on a quiet, tree-lined street in Long Beach's Bixby Knolls neighborhood. It's a block of attorneys and doctors and kids who go to private schools. That meant Peyton was an outliernot just on the court but also in his neighborhood growing up, and then, eventually, on his high school team because of where he was from. "All of our neighbors that he grew up with don't look like him," Ju says. "Poly changed him."

On his own among the 4,000-plus student body, Peyton used basketball as a lifeline.

The coaches didn't know Watson, who'd played on club teams outside Long Beach, but he impressed enough at tryouts to become the first freshman in four years to make varsity. That didn't mean he was going to get treated as a savior; if anything, it made him a target for his teammates.

Watson was like a little brother to the juniors and seniors around campus, but in the gym, they'd test him. "I didn't ask for anyone's help," Watson says. "I didn't come to my parents and complain. I didn't go to the coach and complain. I just took it all. It honestly built this toughness inside of me and this dog inside of me that no one can take from me."

Ju remembers his son coming home one day with a red welt on his sternum. The coach had put Peyton on senior captain Darryl Polk Jr., who now plays at Pepperdine; every chance the upperclassman got, he'd back the skinny freshman down with a shoulder to the chest. "Obviously, they thought he had a lot of potential, but them guys down there weren't treating him like he had a lot of potential. They were treating him like he was shit," Ju says. "We're so fortunate that he had a chance to go through that. A lot of kids of his caliber, nobody ever tells them they suck."

Before one of Watson's games that freshman season, Dart Stamps, long a coach of legendary AAU teams in L.A., walked into the gym and noticed that lanky kid slapping hands and fully engaged during layup lines. He walked over and asked Poly coach Shelton Diggs about the player he thought was an upperclassman: "I said, 'What grade is this kid in?' And he said, 'A ninth grader.' And I said: 'No way! No way.'"

Watson was the first freshman in years to make the Long Beach Poly varsity roster and was forced quickly to adapt to the physicality of his older, and bigger, teammates.
Watson was the first freshman in years to make the Long Beach Poly varsity roster and was forced quickly to adapt to the physicality of his older, and bigger, teammates.Steven Barron for B/R

Stamps, who had stepped away from AAU for a few years to train NBA players, was just getting back into the circuit and knew that Watson would be his point guard. Right away, Stamps told Ju his son was going to be a star: "I was like: 'I know players. I've been doing it for 30 years, and this is a player right here!'"

Stamps' faith let Watson believe he could be special on the court. He'd ridden the bench his freshman year, but now a guy who'd coached Baron Davis, Paul Pierce and so many L.A. stars was putting the ball in his hands. "He really instilled that killer in me," Watson says, remembering a three-on-three drill in which Stamps would stack the deck against him. "He's like, 'If you're really like that, if you're really bad, Peyton, you should be able to score five straight times.'"

Stamps and Watson both start laughing about a scrimmage early in that AAU season. "I would initiate the offense, and we'd run the play [he called] almost every time," Watson says. "But this time I'm thinking, 'All right, I gotta get in my bag. I gotta do a little something.' And as soon as I go to start, he saw it in my eyes, and he's like: 'Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.'"

"He started going one-on-one, so I grabbed the ball out of his hand, right?" Stamps says. "And then he looked at me like I was crazy. He looked at me like, 'What the hell are you doing?'"

The next time down, Watson blew by his defender, saw that there was no help in the lane and took off. It was his first-ever in-game dunk. "He was mad, so he came and dunked on the whole team as a ninth grader," Stamps says. "I just said: 'OK. I'm done. I don't have nothing to say.'"

Watson returned to Poly as a sophomore after averaging 25 points per game on Stamps' team. He wasn't buried on the bench, but he still wasn't starting. And though, as Poly's sixth man, he played a lot, Watson was annoyed. For the first time, he started weighing the possibility of a transfer. There were private school programs that were interested. If he played someplace else, he'd get all the minutes and all the shots. He could be the star.

"The philosophy at Poly is that nothing is given," Watson says. "Transferring was a thought, most definitely, but at the end of the day, going somewhere where everything is just gonna be handed to you isn't always the best situation."

By the end of that second season, Watson was starting to bloom. He was also starting to grow. That spring, when he showed up on his new AAU teamthe Nike EYBL squad The Truthhe was 6'5".

Watson was one of the last players added to a roster meant to be headlined by USC-bound shooting guard Reese Dixon-Waters, one of the top guards in the state. But in their first game, it was Watson who put up 27 points. By the end of the summer, Peyton climbed the national rankings and was brought up to play with the older kids on the U17 team.

By the time his junior season tipped off, Watson had grown another two inches. "And I'm not done growing," Watson says, grinning. "I'm a legitimate 6'8" right now."

"When I seen that he'd grown to 6'8", I said, 'It's over!'" Stamps says. "He's just a basketball player, man. What we call a hooper."


Basketball's taken Eugene "Pooh" Jeter to Ukraine, France, Spain and, for most of the last eight years, China. But he's always been known first and foremost as an L.A. hooper.

As a kid, he played on Stamps' AAU teamhis coach connected him with Davis, who became his mentor. "B.D. is the Godfather of L.A. basketball," Jeter says. "Point period. B.D. really took the time to come back in the inner city and make sure that, first of all: 'I'm visible. You can talk to me about whatever.'"

Inspired by Davis' example, Jeter started a camp for the best young players in the city called Hometown Favorites. His dream is to build a network of L.A. basketball mentors for the next generation. "I have Chris Paul, Shai [Gilgeous-]Alexander, DeMar [DeRozan], Russ [Westbrook], BD, Andre Miller, Trevor [Ariza], Josh Childress, Bobby Brown," he says. "Like, it goes on and on." 

In August 2019, Watson showed up at the second Hometown Favoritesthe first one he and Christian had been invited toon a mission. He thought he was the best 16-year-old in L.A. Now was the time to prove it.

Peyton thrived in the drills and scrimmages, but Jeter says it was during a film session that Peyton caught his eye. Devin Williamsa trainer better known by his social media handle @DevintheLabwas showing tape of Kemba Walker ahead of a dribble handoff drill. Fifteen kids watched the projected video when, all of a sudden, in the darkened gym, Peyton spoke up. "'Hey, hey, hey! Bring that back!'" Jeter remembers him saying. He was impressed the teenager was that obsessed with the minutia of guard play. "I looked over and I said: 'Oh, he's different. He's special. He's special.'"

Since the camp, Watson texts with Jeter every day. He also talks with Ariza twice per month. Ariza—a star at the public Westchester High School—was another mentee of Davis'. If Jeter's the ringleader and McGinest is the stern uncle, Ariza is that chill brother you always emulated. He says Watson is like a sponge for advice.

"I view Peyton like a baby brother," Ariza says, laughing. "Or, like a baby, baby brother. I'll let him know when he's out of line or not doing something appropriate, but I'm gonna let him be his own man too. You can't stand on the kid and not let him be free."

He wants to be to Peyton what Davis was to him: a trusted voice. He's already given him one of Davis' most impactful hand-me-down lessons: Don't get distracted from your work now, because you can have everything you've ever dreamed of once you make the league.

Ariza remembers his first time squaring off with Davis in the NBA: "It was like: 'OK, he's gonna hit me? I'm gonna have to hit him back. He's gonna talk shit to me? I'm gonna have to talk shit back to him. It was funny, because it was just like playing one-on-one against your big brother."


The hoop is set up on a brick driveway, between a manicured hedge and a lemon tree, in front of the Watsons' garage door. It's on an incline, which means the rim sits at different heights from different distances. Still, as Ju and Massey run the brothers through their drills, they hit nearly every shot.

When the drills are finally over, Peyton gets in his defensive stance. Christian sizes him up, dribbles right and misses a jumper. Peyton clears the board. He hits from mid-range, takes the ball up top and then puts his shoulder down and finger-rolls it in.

"Is that 2-0, Chris?" Massey laughs. 

Peyton nods, checking the ball to Christian: "It's about to be 3-0."

Christian passes it back a bit too hard. "It's never 3-0."

With organized basketball runs on hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Watson has been left to refine his game on the hoop in his family's driveway.
With organized basketball runs on hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Watson has been left to refine his game on the hoop in his family's driveway.Joseph Bien-Kahn

Peyton misses a contested jumper, and Christian gets to work. He starts left and then blows by to the right, using his body to shield off his leaping brother's 7'1" wingspan. Now he starts right and then crosses over to stop on a dime. He sells a pump fake. Peyton flies by. He gathers and swishes it from 15 feet. It's 2-2.

Ju and Massey are talking now. Peyton locks in. Christian tries to drive for the win and gets hip-checked. He calls a foul. He's hot. Peyton just grins.

"It's a big-brother thing, man," Peyton says later. "I know what he's gonna look to do when he gets frustrated. And if I can shut his water off, I know I can get in his head."

Christian drives hard to his left again, but Peyton's ready for it, pinning the ball against the backboard. Peyton grabs the board, backs his little brother down to the block and hits a left-handed leaner from 12 feet. Game.

"He's my best friend," Peyton says. "We tell each other everything. But when we start playing, there's a competitiveness that comes out of both of us and we really just don't like each other. He's always trying to aspire to be better than me, and I know I can't allow that."

The brothers play again, and Peyton wins 3-2 for a second time. Christian wants another shot, but Ju calls it. It's getting too heated for his liking.

He and Peyton both tell me that Christian is the best in the city at guarding Peyton. The little brother's seen every single move a thousand times.

The two brothers compete at everything: video games, Uno and, of course, basketball. The Watson parents limited competition to keep their sons from fighting, but they've relaxed the ban on one-on-one given the restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic. Now, every afternoon, the brothers play game after game in their driveway. It's all they have for now.

Before COVID-19, Peyton had big plans for the summer. He was set to head up north for the EYBL to join the Oakland Soldiersthe same team LeBron played for in high school. "To be honest with you, I think if there would've been EYBL, I would've been the No. 1 player in the country by the end of the summer," Peyton says. "That's my goal. That's exactly what I think is gonna happen by the end of my senior year. In those final rankings, I wanna be No. 1."

Instead, he and all the other best high schoolers in the country are stuck at home. The youth-basketball machinecamps, AAU, campus visits, tournamentshas ground to a halt for who knows how long. Jeter sends Peyton and Christian YouTube links to ball-handling drills. He tells them to work on chair shooting and their left hands. "If you can go to some hills, run the hills. Do your sprints," he says. "You can always be in shape."

After Zoom class each morning, Peyton lifts weights, shoots out front and takes a run. He's gotten offers from UCLA, Michigan, Arizona and a handful of other schools, but he hasn't decided yet. He's like every L.A. high schoolerin limbo.

It's eerily quiet when I walk by Long Beach Poly that April afternoon. It's Wednesday at 2 p.m., but the courtyard is empty and the gate is locked. The Poly students are stuck at home, just like the students at Sierra Canyon and the ones at Mater Dei.

Every player has to find their own toolbox with which to build his game. For Peyton, it's Signal Hill and Christian and his collection of mentors. There's no telling when he'll get to lace up his sneakers and play five-on-five again. But he's sure of one thing: When this is all over, he'll be ready. 

   

Joseph Bien-Kahn is based in Los Angeles and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and Playboy. This is his first piece for B/R. He can be reached on Twitter @jbienkahn.


Brown University students Felicia Renulus and Bretram Rogers join David Gardner's How to Survive Without Sports podcast to discuss their school's recent decision to demote 11 varsity sports to the club level, their fight to reverse this decision and this moment of rising student-athlete empowerment.

   

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