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Inside Kevin Durant’s invite-only pickup game that inspired Peyton Watson in high school

It’s a parent’s job to worry over nothing, to invent hypothetical situations that’ll make a teenager’s eyes roll at the sheer effort of the paranoia. Typical stuff, like: What if you cause a serious injury to one of the best NBA players of all time?

As Julio Watson sat in an empty gym with his son, he expressed that fear.

“Look, Peyton, if he comes down the middle or whatever, or if he’s shooting, just get out of the way,” Julio warned. “Last thing you need to do is hurt K.D.”

It was the summer of 2020, and they were waiting for Kevin Durant at the West Los Angeles gym where they’d been told to meet. The Watsons — Peyton, his dad and uncle — were the first to arrive. Chalk it up to a combination of eagerness and morning traffic anticipation. They drove up from their home in Long Beach. Peyton was going to need a ride back, too. He didn’t have his license yet.

Durant showed up with an associate about 10 minutes later and started taking shots. Slowly, others started trickling in: Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert, Kyrie Irving.

Peyton Watson was between his junior and senior years of high school, but he had an invite to the best pickup game in Los Angeles. Arranged by one of his basketball idols.

“I was starstruck,” Watson said. “I couldn’t even sleep the night before. I didn’t even go to sleep. I stayed up all night.”

Four years later, the Nuggets wing still considers that day one of the most important of his life. For about two hours, he was the only high schooler in a small group of players running full-court pickup games, led by the two-time NBA Finals MVP.

“I was training. Trying to get guys in the gym every day to train, to get ready for the season, because I was coming off the Achilles injury,” Durant told The Denver Post. “So we were bringing guys every day. And I think that day, Peyton had came in, and guys might’ve canceled on us that day. So we just played full-court 3-on-3. … We weren’t expecting anything out of anybody. Just playing hard and just having an honest hoop game. He came in and fit right in.”

That Achilles injury was the one that derailed the 2019 NBA Finals and forced Durant to miss the next season. Watson’s dad could envision the headlines: “High school player injures Kevin Durant, delays return.” So he made sure to pass along those fears to Peyton, whose competitive instinct has been visible to Nuggets fans throughout this season whenever he sacrifices his body to fly after a swattable shot.

“When I got there, I came to play ball and show what I could do. Showcase my talent,” Watson said. “So I went out there and didn’t want to be one of those guys who just was happy to be there. I went out there and was challenging people. I was scoring. I was holding my own.”

That’s how he earned the invitation in the first place. It started at one of his high school games. Junior year. During a first-quarter timeout. Watson, a blue-chip recruit at Long Beach Poly, noticed a commotion. “I saw him walk in,” he recalls, “and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” Durant, a connoisseur of hoops at all levels, was in the building.

He and Kobe Bryant were Watson’s favorite NBA players growing up. His dad once got mad at him for misplacing a brand-new pair of Durant shoes during a youth basketball trip.

Watson had an outstanding game. So did his brother, Christian. Durant was impressed by both. He and Peyton developed a line of communication via social media DMs. “I think I followed him, and then he might’ve hit me up first,” Durant said. “I don’t know. It’s just one of those friendships that you don’t know how it started; it just organically happened. He’s been my brother ever since.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NBA, a rehabbing Durant was in Los Angeles to train. That’s when his people reached out to Watson’s with a time and location.

It was common then for Julio or his brother, Brantley, to drive Peyton to basketball-related events or workouts. The three of them went to this one together, unsure what to expect. They’d never been in an environment like this with professionals. As the run started, Watson’s family members were the only bystanders other than trainers and support staff.

“You’re just sparring, man,” Durant said. “You’re just taking the risks with certain stuff that you want to learn and get better at. Fade-aways and step-back 3s. Stuff that you probably didn’t work on during your season. Try to work on it there. It’s trial-and-error time.”

There were about a dozen games, first to seven or eight points. Precise details are murky now, but Watson remembers being on a team with Irving and Christian Wood. The other team included Durant, Prince, and Jaylen Hands, a Brooklyn Nets G League player. There were a few no-shows, lending Watson more reps. “He wouldn’t have played every game, since he was so young, and we try to give the seniority to the pros,” Durant said.

Watson and Wood shared responsibilities defending Durant, who was incapable of missing a shot. At the other end of the floor, Irving shared Durant’s philosophy about it being a chance for all participants to experiment. For him, that meant trying out a variety of off-hand finishes — foreshadowing his incredible buzzer-beater to defeat the Nuggets this March. It also meant spreading the wealth. On a handful of possessions, Irving gestured for Watson to bring the ball up and create a shot for himself. Irving was friendly with Watson afterward, though he didn’t know anything about the 17-year-old.

“Peyton was kind of a big deal in high school, and Kyrie had no idea who he was. I thought that was the most refreshing thing ever,” his dad said. “Like, you think you’re a big deal, but here’s a guy who’s like, ‘I have no idea who this guy is.’”

Watson was proud of how he held his own. He made shots. He handled the ball well. He didn’t cause any injuries, much to his dad’s relief.

“It was actually one of the better days we had,” Durant said. “Because it was ups and downs trying to come out of rehab, and everybody trying to find their rhythm through the pandemic. So it was a weird time, but I think we got something out of it for sure. It’s a great environment. It’s one of those things that you always want to remember as you get older — those moments in the gym with no cameras, no practice jerseys, no refs. It’s just us purely hooping for the fun of it.”

“One of the better experiences of my life,” Watson called it. “Not only for my game and sharpening against the best players in the world, but also for my confidence. They threw me out there and they were like, ‘You’re one of us. You’re a pro just like us.’ That meant a lot to me.”

It opened a door into a bigger world for Watson. The other players in attendance that day stayed supportive of him. He got invited to other events, including one with John Wall. He kept in touch with Durant. “I just wanted to be like, almost in a way, an apprentice to him,” Watson said. “See the things that he does, see the things that he works on, and mainly just keep that relationship in case I had any questions, not only on the court but off it as well.”

When Watson boldly bet on himself by entering the NBA draft as a one-and-done despite averaging only 3.3 points in 13 minutes at UCLA, Durant sent him an encouraging text. “I love this,” Watson recalls Durant saying.

“I love that he’s carving out a lane for himself, because in college he didn’t get a lot of minutes. He didn’t play a lot,” Durant says now. “He got drafted purely off of talent, potential, his athleticism. He’s somebody I’ve really got major respect for. I really want to see him do well.”

In the weeks leading up to the 2022 draft, Watson was playing pickup again with NBA company. It was a bigger group this time, enough for five-on-five. He met a future teammate there, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And he reconvened with Irving, but this time on opposite teams.

“I’ll tell you about Peyton, man,” Irving said, smiling. “I walk into the gym, and I’m like, ‘Who is this little kid right here that’s towering over me and picking me up dang near above half-court, when it’s just pickup?’ But the crowd on the side, it was a small gym, and they started getting into it.”

Five-on-five became one-on-one. Irving scored on Watson. Watson returned the favor. “So then he came back at me,” Watson said. “He scored again, I came down. I scored.” They went back and forth in isolation, several possessions in a row. Then Irving finally missed one. The draft prospect didn’t. He buried a 3-pointer to win the game for his team.

“I got in a one-on-one battle with Kyrie Irving and I won,” Watson declared proudly. “I’m one of the only people that can say that.”

And he did it by playing pick-up like a competitive provocateur, pressuring Irving all the way up the floor. Neither of them held back. And nobody got hurt.

See, Dad? Nothing to worry about.

“I will admit that he scored on me a few times,” Irving said. “We were going at it. That was kind of my telltale sign that he was gonna be a good player in this league for a long time. He had no fear. He didn’t back down. He got me better that day.”

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