Kylee Watson plays hoops at Mainland for love of the game

Photos – local – JCATH07 No 5x
Mainland’s Kylee Watson (center) watches a free throw in a recent game.

It was hard to imagine Kylee Watson being any more pumped up on a basketball court.

She didn’t hit the game-winning shot. And this wasn’t the national team.

This was a regular-season game in early January. And her Mainland girls’ basketball team had beaten Gloucester Catholic on a go-ahead three-pointer by Claudia Mairone with two seconds left in double overtime.

The moment — actually, the game in general — was nothing if not a statement by Watson, an answer to one of those lingering, nagging questions.

Watson — an elite 6-foot-4 sophomore — was labeled a prodigy by some at an early age. Although she is still not even an upperclassman in high school, basketball has already taken Watson around the globe. She has thrived on national and world stages.

The high school game — she plays for a small public school in deep South Jersey — looks underwhelming compared to the rest of her resume.

And that’s the root of one of those common questions that surround her.

What does the high school game actually mean to her? Isn’t harder to get up for these games?

Her answer is as clear as her reaction on the court that day against Gloucester Catholic.

For Watson, it’s just basketball. It’s all just basketball. It’s the sport she loves to play.

“When it comes down to it, it’s all about how hard you play, about trying to win games. That’s what I love about this sport,” Watson said.

Watson, listed as a five-star recruit by ESPN, spent the summer earning those wins with the USA Basketball under-16 national team at the 2017 FIBA America under-16 championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

She helped lead to team to a Gold Medal and a ticket to this year’s FIBA under-17 World Cup.

“It was a great experience to expand my game and form new relationships,” Watson said. “And of course, representing my country on a stage like that was just amazing.”

It was further proof that Watson is more than willing to put in the work to back up her growing profile on the national scene.

Her combination of size and agility is what women’s basketball superstars are made of. She’s nimble and strong and, even though she’s one of South Jersey’s tallest players, she’s also an elite ball handler and can shoot from anywhere on the court.

Her ability combined with her experience is a coach’s dream.

“The bottom line is she makes my job so much easier just because she is so fantastic as a basketball player,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “But the best thing about it is, when you speak to her, there’s no ego about any of her talent or about anything she’s accomplished. She’s one of the nicest, most humble, most hardworking kids that we have.”

For Watson, it’s an easy attitude to have. Her perspective, it appears, is as advanced for her age as her basketball skill. And her enthusiasm for her small hometown in South Jersey is genuinely as strong as it is for her spot on the national team.

“I’m so grateful for every opportunity basketball has given me, all the people I’ve met, all the opportunities I’ve had. It’s just incredible because I never thought that, at this age, I’d be able to travel the world and have friends all over country,” said Watson, who averages 20 points per game for Mainland.

“But the high school game, these are the girls I grew up with. We’ve known each other our whole lives. Just having them by my side means so much. And I love being able to represent Mainland.”

For Watson, all signs are pointing toward a basketball career in which the best moments should lie ahead.

Watson has more time with the national team in the near future. Her college search will soon amp up. And after college? Who knows? Watson concedes to having visions of playing in the WNBA. She’s done being surprised by where basketball may lead her.

But for now, she’s just enjoying the ride. Loving the game. Cherishing those wins in any setting.

“The thing you learn is you just have to keep working hard because everybody is working hard,” Watson said. “You can’t listen to the hype. You just have to keep working. I’m just excited to see where the game takes me.”