IN AN interview with the Western Bulldogs' recruiting team at last month's Draft Combine, Nick Watson was asked to talk about himself for two minutes without mentioning football.
"I thought it was going to be easy," Watson told AFL.com.au. "But I didn't last long. I brought up dad and said he was coaching at Montrose. They said 'Hang on, is that footy?' 'Yep, I give up!' It was harder than I thought. I was trying to talk about my family and somehow brought up footy."
It probably wouldn't surprise anyone who has known the footy-mad Watson, seen him play or even consumed just a 10-second clip of his highlights reel to know the central role of the game in his life.
And next Monday, when the first night of the draft is held at Marvel Stadium, the Eastern Ranges prospect will be one of the first few names called as he starts his AFL career.
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The 18-year-old's parents, Lori and David, remember their youngest son kicking a footy better than he could walk as a toddler. At kindergarten, he would boot the ball into the tree, climb up and get it and then do it again. He was at Auskick when he was three, trailing around older brother Brad, before he played in the under-8s competition.
But with no scoring allowed, he found his competitive fix in the local basketball competition, quickly making the representative side Kilsyth Cobras in Melbourne's eastern suburbs as a point guard.
"I thought I played a bit like (NBA player) Chris Paul. Dad stopped coming to my games because I started wearing kneepads and all that. I watched too much NBA," Watson said.
He made the Victorian under-12s football side – twice – and continued to play both sports before siding with football, for two main reasons. First was the crossover – he had training with his basketball team on a Sunday morning and then would arrive at his football club tired before the game begun.
The other was his size. As a small kid, he didn't see his future with basketball, despite his talents on the court.
"He was quick, so if he could get the ball and make a fast break nobody could beat him down to the ring. But once he got to under-14s they're all about six-foot-four, so he'd come up against brick walls," Lori recalled. "He'd always score and run between their legs pretty much. He loved basketball but I knew deep down football was his thing."
Watson had always been one of the smaller kids. "He'd say 'Do you reckon I'll grow more, mum?', and we'd say to just control what you can," Lori said.
Now, at 170cm, Watson will be one of the shortest players in the AFL once he has his name called, despite clubs traditionally shying away from small forwards with early picks. He looks back to the under-15 championships, when he was the leading goalkicker in the carnival as an under-aged player while being mentored by former North Melbourne great Brent Harvey, whose son Cooper was in the same team, as a key moment in his belief his size didn't matter.
"When I started to get the sense I was going to be a smaller player I worked really hard on my craft and all of the little things I could work on instead of worrying about my height. In those days I used to get told a lot that I was going to be too small and I knew I was going to be small as well coming up against blokes who had growth spurts early and I was tiny," Watson said.
"That's where it was good having Brent Harvey there with us. He used to tell me every day that I wasn't too small. I'm the same height as him now which is good.
"He was a good mentor because when you're 14 or 15 you get caught up in being told you're too small to play AFL and it gets to your head a bit. I felt like I had to work extra hard because of my height."
His dad had a long local career and was formerly on Carlton's under-19 list. In fact, earlier this season when Sydney list boss Kinnear Beatson visited the Watsons' house, the pair recognised each other from when Beatson had been in footy operations with the Blues' team in the early 1990s. David said there were questions whether Nick's height would stop him from reaching the top.
"You always worry about it because you think there's not many players who play at that height. But I always thought he had something pretty special to offer. The way the game's played now helps him. Fifteen years ago he wouldn't have been looked at. The ground closes down and opens up now," he said. "He was never going to be six-foot-six so he kept his skills."
That under-15 championships was one of a few key points in Watson's draft path. He caught the eye for Vic Metro in its under-16s games in 2021 and then moved to Caulfield Grammar from Rowville Sports Academy. He kicked goals for fun there, while also dominating for the Eastern Ranges as a bottom-ager.
This year, he's booted more than 70 goals across all games and competitions he's played in, including being the leading goalkicker at the under-18 championships with 14 goals from four games for Vic Metro. North Melbourne, Hawthorn, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne have all considered him with their top-10 selections.
Watson's goal sense, speed, high-flying grabs, quick hands, in-your-face approach and sizzling celebrations tick the boxes of the typical small forward. And as a mad Collingwood fan growing up, he had an obvious hero.
"He loved Alan Didak and said to me once, 'Mum, do you reckon I could wear number four for Collingwood?'" Lori said.
However, it wasn't until he started being buffeted around that some of his talkative on-field persona, which has been highlight reel-ed and TikTok-ed through this season, came through.
"He wasn't always like that," Lori said. "It came about because he'd start getting pushed around and he'd be like 'I'm not going to just sit here and take it'. But that's not him really. He's generally pretty quiet about his footy."
Watson said his quieter, humble style can switch when he steps out to play.
"On the field I'm a bit different to how I am off it I'd say," he said.
"Off the field I'm a pretty laidback, chilled sort of guy and on the field I look pretty energetic and there's clips of me talking a bit of smack. It doesn't bother me to be honest. All my mates know what I'm like but that's just the way I play with a bit of arrogance and confidence."
That has also come with pressure. Recruiters have gone to games to watch 'The Watto Show', often switching ends to follow him in the forward line. Opposition teams, particularly in the schools competition, have sent hard tags to him and he's dealt with consistent sledging from over the fence, including the question on 'where's your wand, Watson?', a reference to his 'Wizard' nickname over recent years for his capacity to produce some football magic inside-50.
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"I don't like it when he gets too push and shovey but I'm not his coach and he likes to play like that," David said.
"I always think 'Why are you over there?' and next thing you know he's got it. Then I think 'Oh well, I can't say anything about that then'. It's not where I think he should be but then he'll have the ball in his hands."
Watson's 'Wizard' moniker has stuck, so much so that when a club visited for an interview earlier this year they asked him if he knew who the original 'Wizard' was. "I knew Jeff Farmer and had seen his highlights but I didn't know his nickname was 'the Wizard'," Watson said. "I've done some research since then."
Kysaiah Pickett, Tom Papley and Bobby Hill are current AFL stars who Watson has followed closely, seeing them make an impact as small forwards. He wants to do the same – and fast.
"My mindset now is that I want to have an impact on AFL level as soon as possible," he said. "I feel like I've got that capability, I just want to put that to work and get to it in the off-season. My goal is to play early."