The Cedarville defender was left saying the same thing those AAU coaches in Parkersburg, WV said nearly eight years ago:
“This guy is smooth!”
With about 12 minutes to play in the first half of the University of Dayton’s 93-60 victory over Cedarville in an exhibition game at UD Arena Saturday, Ibi Watson – the 6-foot-5 junior guard making his first appearance in a Flyers uniform after transferring from Michigan a year ago – got the ball near the top of the key, juked left, went to his right, used a crossover dribble to come back left and promptly sent his befuddled defender tumbling to the court.
And that’s when he calmly launched a three pointer that snapped the net cords for his second straight three in what would end up as a game-high 17 point night for him.
“When he started in AAU, his coaches said, ‘He’s so smooooth!’” said Molly Watson, who raised Ibi as a single parent and gave him some of that special gift he shows on the court.
“Yeah, that is something I’ve heard people say, that I’m kinda smooth out there on the court,” Ibi admitted quietly. “I’m trying to add more to my game now and be a little more outgoing, but some of those movements I have are things that probably came from my mom.
“She was a dancer and dancers know about body movements.”
Molly, who grew up in Caldwell, was a fine arts major at Ohio State and was part of the OSU dance company. After graduation, she headed to New York City.
“I had a suitcase and a thousand bucks,” she said. She also had been given the name of a studio and a choreographer and told her to “go knock on the door.”
She ended up part of the Rondo Dance Theater, but after eight years in New York she relocated to Atlanta in 1995, a year before the city would host the Summer Olympic Games.
She connected with the African dance and drum community there and her group soon landed a spot in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.
“I was on the arena floor,” she said. “Two people walked holding a big drum and I danced around it and hit it.”
It was at the Atlanta Games where she met Ibi’s dad, a Senegalese drummer. He gave Ibi his height and his first name – Ibrahim – and though he and Molly married, he went back to Africa after six months and has not been a part of his son life.
And that is his loss.
Ibi became a special basketball talent, so much so that UD, then coached by Archie Miller, first offered him a scholarship when he was just a sophomore in high school.
And now, at 21, he is growing into a more well-rounded young man, said his mom, who is an administrator at Hocking College in Nelsonville and runs the junior college’s federal Trio programs.
“He’s becoming a thinker and appreciates knowledge so much more now than he used to,” she said. “We were coming out of the Arena after the game and we started talking to his criminal justice professor and they launched into a philosophical discussion. He’s interested in human rights and civil rights now.
“It’s great to see him expand his horizon.”
Ibi credits a lot of his growth to his mom:
“Our bond is super, super strong. I can’t think of anything that could be stronger.”
He said while she raised him on her own, she “did a good job putting positive people around me, people who were really good influences.”
Molly said her son never really embraced his full first name, so “he’s always been Ibi.
“He just wanted to be as American as he could be and he embraced all kinds of sports.”
His AAU development – after playing for ELITE in Parkersburg, he joined the King James Shooting Stars and then All Ohio Red – was mirrored on the high school courts, as well.
He played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Athens High School, where he averaged 17.5 points per game and then transferred to Pickerington Central and averaged 19.2 points per game his last two years.
When he took his first UD visit in 2014, he and his mom met Trey Landers and his mom, Tracy.
Later he and Landers were on the same AAU team.
Ibi chose Michigan for a few reasons.
He wanted to play for a big-time Power 5 school and his “mentor” was Caris Lavert, who had also played at Pickerington Central and then starred at Michigan before being a first-round draft pick of the Indiana Pacers, who then traded him to the Brooklyn Nets where he plays now.
Molly said her son’s biggest reason for going to Michigan was Wolverines assistant coach Bacari Alexander (now an assistant at the University of Denver.)
“I had a great relationship with him,” Ibi said.
“He was like a coach/uncle to him. He was like Uncle Barcari,” Molly said. “And he’s remained a friend of ours to this day.”
In his two seasons a Michigan, Ibi played in 45 games and the team won two Big Ten titles and went to two NCAA Tournaments, including to the NCAA Championship game when he was a sophomore.
As a young player on a talent-laden squad, he averaged five minutes a game.
He said he learned a lot in those two seasons, especially in practice every day where he went against several guys who now are playing professionally.
Although Alexander had left the program by then and he wanted to play more, Ibi said it was still difficult for him to transfer:
“I had a lot of good friends there. I still do.”
He made a list of schools he wanted to check out – including Duquesne, Pittsburgh, Ohio University – that were close enough so his mom could drive to see his games.
Molly said they were planning on coming to Dayton last but UD assistant coach Anthony Solomon said the Flyers wanted to see Ibi “as soon as they could.”
“I had made a chart of the things that were most important, the things we were looking for,” she said. “And everything at UD checked off: Great program, great school, a coaching staff that was awesome. And Coach Grant (head coach Anthony Grant) was a big part of it. He is a great example for Ibi on how to do things in life.”
Like the three other transfers who joined the program last season, Ibi had to sit out a year to meet NCAA transfer requirements.
After Friday’s exhibition – in which he made 4 of 6 three point attempts, was 3 of 4 from the free throw line and had four rebounds, four assists and a steal against just one turnover in nearly 18 minutes of play – he talked about finally getting to play again:
“It was a surreal moment. Last year there were times I thought this moment would never come. It felt good to be out there playing play with my brothers.”
He wasn’t one of the starters Saturday, but his mom said one of his former Michigan teammates put that in perspective for him right after the game:
“Duncan Robinson reached out to him. He said, ‘Dude, I was in the starting lineup and then I wasn’t in the starting lineup and now I’m playing for the (Miami) Heat. Keep your head down, grind and get yours!’”
After the game Ibi talked about that.
“I control what I can control. Whether I’m coming off the bench, starting or whether I’m the 10th man, I’m just going to try to be the same person every day and bring it when we go to work.
“Honestly, we all want to see each other succeed. We’re all so bought-in, it doesn’t matter at all.”
One place where he and some teammates differ though is on the dance floor.
Saturday’s game program listed answers to a players’ survey and two Flyers guards — Jalen Crutcher and Rodney Chatman – had picked Ibi as the best dancer on the team.
“I’d say I was, but I‘m humble so I’ll go with Ibi,” a grinning Chatman said after the game. “He is pretty good.”
Then again, he’s got the genes.
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