By Cam Huffman
Rondale Watson joined the Greenbrier East basketball team prior to his junior season looking to accomplish two major goals — bring some excitement back to the Spartan program and reach the Division I level at the end of his prep career.
It’s safe to say his journey ended in success.
Watson led the Spartans to a 38-12 record over the past two seasons, playing before packed houses almost every night. After graduation, he’ll be headed to Wake Forest on a basketball scholarship.
The Class AAA first-team all-stater will leave as the most decorated Greenbrier East player since Virginia Tech and NBA standout Bimbo Coles, and he’ll take with him the honors of 2014 Register-Herald Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“To me, he’s the absolute best player in the state of West Virginia, because he brings so many different dimensions,” said Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice of Watson, who beat out runner-up Corey Bowles (Westside) as well as finalists Elisha Kidd (Greater Beckley), Donte Nabors (Woodrow Wilson) and Justin Cogar (Westside) in a vote of the five-member Register-Herald sports staff. “On our team, he had to carry the load. He had to be able to handle the ball in the backcourt with all sorts of intense pressure that came his way. He had to lead us in scoring. He had to rebound the ball. He had to make passes and make assists. He had so many different roles.”
Watson averaged 23 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals per game this season, shooting 45 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3-point range. It was his outside shot that showed the most improvement from years past and helped earn him a scholarship to an ACC school.
“My game evolved being in the gym shooting instead of just always trying to go to the basket,” said Watson. “You’re not always going to be quicker than your opponent, so having that shot adds another dimension.”
Watson clearly had the skills as a second-team Class AA all-stater as a sophomore at Oak Hill, but Justice said he watched his game reach new levels in two seasons with the Spartans.
“He played with all of his physical abilities, but he did not have any idea how to play within a system,” said Justice of the raw player he received prior to the 2012-13 season. “His ball handling skills and shooting ability were probably a B or B+. He could not play in the backcourt at the level he wants to play with mediocre ball handling skills and a mediocre outside shot. So he learned to play within a system, and he learned to be able to work on ball handling and his outside shot. He shot a million shots, and Mo Ball helped him tremendously with his shot.
“Every single day he came to practice he was always, ‘yes sir, no sir,’ and he was just the most coachable kid on the floor. He’s ready now.”
Now it’s time for the next goal for Watson, who finished his three-year high school career with more than 1,600 points, 550 rebounds and 275 assists. He knows he still has doubters who don’t believe he can play at the highest level of college basketball, and he’s working hard to prove them wrong.
“It always motivates you when people don’t think you are what you know you are,” said Watson. “But I can always improve. I can improve my footwork, and I can still get better with my shot.”
Watson will also have something to prove to his coaches, considering the coaching staff that was responsible for his recruitment and signing is no longer in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Former coach Jeff Bzdelik resigned after the season under tremendous pressure. Last Friday, the Demon Deacons hired former Kansas star Danny Manning, who went 38-29 in two years as the head coach at Tulsa, to take his place.
“We were close, and he was a nice guy,” said Watson of Bzdelik. “But I never doubted my decision. Wake Forest is a great school, and I know I can make it work.”
Watson wasn’t born when Manning was leading KU to the 1988 national championship, and he was a young child when Manning’s NBA career came to an end in 2003.
But after doing a quick search on the Internet, Watson said he’s excited about his new coach’s basketball background.
“I think he’ll bring some energy and a lot of positives,” said the 6-foot-2 guard. “I’m hoping maybe it’s for the best.”
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.