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Zopf: Gainesville freshman shows talent, maturity
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It took Deshaun Watson only two minutes to utter the phrase “big-time players make big-time plays in big moments.”

The fact that the freshman can spit out clichés without thinking is one example of how he’s mature beyond his years; his play on the basketball court is another.

Already a surefire star as the quarterback of the Gainesville High football team, Watson had his breakout performance last Monday against West Hall when he blew up for 34 points and made clutch 3-pointer after clutch 3-pointer to lead the Red Elephants to a 70-67 triple-overtime win.

“I had a lot of confidence in my shot,” Watson said. “It felt good to come up big when my team needed it.”

Shining in critical moments is nothing new to the freshman phenom. After slowly acclimating himself as the signal caller of the football team, Watson gained confidence as the season progressed, and when it came to a close, it was clear that naming him the starter was the right call.

His progression on the basketball court mirrors the one he had on the field, as does his late-season success.

“He’s an outstanding basketball player,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “His confidence has improved and he knows the team’s expectations.”

At the beginning of the season Watson wasn’t asked to do too much. When he entered the game, he deferred to the more established players, including seniors A.J. Johnson and Quon Holcomb. But as the season progressed, he established himself as a guy the Red Elephants can count on in big moments late in the game.

Watson is so comfortable when the lights are brightest that it’s hard to believe he’s just 15 years old.

“He’s not your average freshman mentally,” Cottrell said. “He’s certainly near the top of the list in the best freshmen I’ve coached or seen.”

So how does he do it?

The simple answer is because he’s freakishly athletic. He’s 6-foot-2, 180 pounds and has speed that helps him on both the football field and basketball court. While he hasn’t displayed it much yet, he can jump out of the gym too, evidenced by setting a new state record in the high jump last year in middle school. Doctors told him he could be 6-5 and 215 pounds by the time he graduates, which means when it comes to the future, he pretty much can pick which sport he wants to play at the next level.

“He’s been blessed with athletic ability,” Cottrell said. “I think he can play at a high level in any sport he chooses to play.
“He has as much potential in basketball as he does football.”

As of now, Watson’s leaning toward a college football career, but that doesn’t mean he won’t consider playing hoops in college.

“It’ll all come down to where I see myself in the future,” he said. “I’m going to focus on both.”

His concentration on both sports is what makes him so successful as such a young age. That, plus he’s humble and is surrounded by a group of adults who have never forced him to specialize in just one sport.

“I didn’t even play basketball until I was in the fourth grade,” Watson said. “A coach saw my height, asked me to come out, and the first time I played, I loved it.”

Five years later, he’s already on the radar of some major college basketball programs. Coaches noticed his play during a summer camp, and will no doubt track his progress over the next two years.

College football coaches will do the same, and when the time comes to make his decision, he might find it difficult to choose a sport.

“I’ll probably take visits for both,” he said. “Right now, it’s football, but in the future, it might change.”

While his dream, like that of the majority of high school athletes, is to one day play professional athletics, he’s not putting all his eggs in one basket. He doesn’t care if he plays in the NFL, the NBA or neither. He recognizes that he’s a great athlete, but doesn’t let anyone or anything inflate his ego and make him become a me-first player.

Talent is in his blood, self-absorption isn’t.

As athletic as he is on the basketball court and football field, that mentality of always putting the team first is what will have colleges in both sports knocking down his door.

He knows that at 15.

I wish I could say the same about some adults.

Jonathan Zopf is a sports writer at The Times. Follow him at

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