For now, the Bulls starting point guard is a fifth-year player who has spent his entire career coming off the bench, where he’s carved a niche for himself as a dependable role player.
In his second year in Chicago, he’s garnered his share of praise from coach Tom Thibodeau for his heady play, low turnover rate, serviceable defense and game management. He’s also seen his minutes reduced, and rightfully so, because he’s playing behind the game’s reigning MVP.
And while just about all of Bulls nation remains focused on every bit of news there is surrounding Derrick Rose’s case of turf toe on his left foot, how bad the injury is and when he might return, rest assured that the Bulls’ offense has been in safe hands with Watson running the show in the interim. So say the results.
With Rose sidelined indefinitely, there’s no better player on the roster to fill his void than Watson.
“The point guard position has been fine, and the rest of the team has stepped up,” Thibodeau said before Saturday’s 95-89 win over the visiting Charlotte Bobcats. “We like our depth and these guys have been putting their work in….For us, it doesn’t change how we play regardless of who’s in or who’s out. We’re going to defend, rebound, try to keep our turnovers down, inside-out, share the ball. That’s what we like to do every day.”
Twice during his pre-game availability, Thibodeau said some variation of: “I’m good with who we have. I think we have more than enough.”
And Thibodeau said so knowing that not only Rose but also forward Taj Gibson (ankle), Joakim Noah (ankle) and John Lucas III (groin) are tending to their own injuries.
Simply put, the Bulls aren’t going to bring back Rose prematurely, and they’re confident that Watson, along with veteran Mike James and John Lucas III, can get the job done.
Say what you will about the competition – the Bobcats have won just two games this season – but the 36-year-old James was spry and on-point in his most minutes as a Bull, as the veteran guard recorded nine points and 10 assists in 17 minutes backing up Watson. James has always been a scorer, but he’s also effective in pick-and-roll situations and did a fine job of keeping the Bulls in a rhythm. James only adds to the Bulls’ depth and is also a proven winner. He won a NBA title with teammate Rip Hamilton and the Pistons in 2004, and was with the Houston Rockets when Thibodeau was an assistant there, so not only is he familiar with the Bulls’ system but also with what makes a championship-caliber team.
“It’s not just the starters that make a championship roster,” James said. “It’s everyone from 1 through 15. So you have to be able to step in if your number’s called, you have to be able to play your role and that’s all I was trying to do.”
The same goes for Watson, who isn’t going to give the Bulls anything that Rose can’t although that’s not the point.
What’s important to know is that Watson, who’s good enough to start for a majority of teams, has developed a comfort level that has come with more leeway from Thibodeau. For a regular backup to have complete trust from the coaching staff is no given for all teams, but Watson has proven himself worthy after coming into the abbreviated training camp in top shape and a season with the Bulls already under his belt.
“Thibs lets me call plays and he just lets me go out there and command the team, and play, really,” Watson told CSNChicago.com after Friday’s win in Cleveland. “So, I just go out there and have fun. I guess he trusts me a little more.”
Thibodeau said that if anyone has been deserving of more minutes it’s been Watson, who has averaged 21.2 minutes through nine games this season, up nearly eight minutes from last season. He finished with 11 points, nine assists and just two turnovers on Saturday night and entered the contest shooting 43.5% from the field, up from 37.1% a season ago, and 52.4% from behind the arc.
He’s dishing 4.5 assists this season and has had a pass-first mentality with Rose out. Against the Bobcats, Watson never forced anything early on and instead ran the offense through Luol Deng (six points in the first) and also went to Richard Hamilton, who continued to post up rookie Kemba Walker, on other possessions. And Watson has done a fine job of upholding the Bulls’ transition game whenever opportunities present themselves.
Watson has averaged 16.3 points, 7.0 assists and a combined five turnovers in his three starts this season. He’s done all this after an elbow injury sidelined him for nine games earlier this month.
“C.J.’s playing great,” forward Luol Deng said. “He’s running the team, he’s making shots, he’s playing defense. C.J. is a good player and he’s been like that when he was in Golden State and right now with Derrick hurt. We have full confidence in him. We’ve been playing with him. I play a lot with the second unit so I’m familiar with his play.”
Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.