A senior from Durham, N.C., Watts has averaged 1.2 points and 1.2 rebounds in 6.2 minutes this season. Yet those numbers don't include the intangible contributions that Watts has provided, chiefly the immeasurable quality of leadership.
During Watts's four seasons in Chapel Hill, he has experienced plenty of ups and downs. From scoring UNC's final basket in the 2009 national championship game as a freshman, to enduring an NIT-bound campaign the following year and then watching his teammate and roommate Larry Drew II leave the program inexplicably in 2011, to now being on another title contender, Watts's career has come full circle.
Roy Williams echoed those thoughts on this senior class: “Those kids have gone through so many different things and have stuck with what we’re trying to do and been good examples and good representatives of the University as well as our basketball program.”
While Zeller may earn the majority of the on-the-court accolades for the senior duo, those behind the scenes have continually praised Watts for his effort and leadership. Last summer, Williams stressed to Watts the need for him to be a strong leader. Watts has delivered.
“He is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” Williams said. “He’s one of the guys that understands what we’re trying to do on and off the court. As good as anybody who’s been willing to sacrifice a great deal to play out of position to give us some help there and knowing that it is difficult for him to succeed when he’s trying to box out a 6-9 guy and is just going to be overpowered.”
Like his head coach, Zeller admires what Watts brings to the Tar Heels on the court.
“Justin brings a lot, especially in practice,” Zeller said. “He comes in everyday, plays as hard as possible, and he’s somebody that knows the system very well. He can teach the young guys what to do and then in the games he’s a tremendous defender and rebounder.”
Williams and Zeller both recognize Watts’s ability to lead. The senior not only embraces his role, but he also understands the responsibilities of his teammates, which is an invaluable asset to a team seeking championships.
A leader must also be willing to sacrifice his time and offer up his knowledge when the lights and cameras are off. It has been said that what is done when nobody is looking is the true demonstration of one’s character. This quality is what separates leaders, and regardless of their ability on the court, they always know where teammates should be and are more than willing to do whatever it takes in order to help the team succeed.
Barnes sees that in Watts: “Whether it’s talking to freshmen, getting guys going, getting in the gym with guys, taking guys to go out to eat, making sure they feel welcomed to the team, he does a lot of little things that kind of keeps the team going, but may not necessarily get a lot of headlines."
Henson agreed: “[Watts] does all the little things, helps us out, knows what to do and just keeps everybody together.”
It is impossible to quantify what leadership brings to a basketball team. It is not as simple as referencing how many points, rebounds or assists a player averages. While it might be an indefinable quality, leadership is undoubtedly essential to fielding a successful team.
Leaders can be star players or they can be role players. Regardless, they must be willing to sacrifice their own time and put forth their best effort for the good of the team. There is no doubt that Watts has been more than willing to play that role.
Watts came to Chapel Hill as the least heralded player in a four player recruiting class that included three All-Americans. He could have gone elsewhere and played more, but he opted for North Carolina. In doing so he hasn't been in the spotlight -- in fact he's deflected many opportunites at the spotlight during his career, declining interview requests and deflecting attention toward his team and teammates.
Four years later, Watts has played four different positions, and played in more games than any other current teammate. He has played his role, helped others around him and become the leader that the Tar Heels needed.