March 2, 2024

He’s her favorite player. When LeBron James sat courtside at a recent USC women’s basketball game, the Lakers star showed that JuJu Watkins is rising up his list, too.

“She’s the next greatest thing in women’s basketball,” James said two days after he watched USC dismantle UC Riverside with Watkins scoring 27 points in 29 minutes.

The top-ranked player in her recruiting class is living up to all the hype. USC’s star freshman ranks second in the country in scoring, is drawing larger and larger crowds to Galen Center and has put her hometown Trojans in the national conversation for the first time in decades.

In the current era of female college basketball star — headlined by names such as Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark — Watkins could soon shine brighter than all of them. But the Watts native’s true power is greater than basketball.

Seattle Storm shooting guard Jewell Loyd provides a strategic breakdown of some of USC freshman guard JuJu Watkins’ best plays this season.

Watkins is a loyal hometown product committed to bringing USC back to glory. She is in Nike commercials. She has pro stars checking on her progress with USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who points out the prodigious 18-year-old is “like your favorite basketball player’s favorite basketball player.”

“She can be one of the best women’s basketball players to ever touch a basketball,” said James Harden, who worked out with Watkins while she was still in high school at Sierra Canyon. “That’s how good she is. That’s how hard she works.”

Said Paul George, whose own attempt at a workout with Watkins this summer fell through when their schedules didn’t align: “You name the top female college girls, she should get that same recognition for what she’s doing, and honestly true freshman, she’s killing it.”

Watkins is averaging 26.8 points while helping No. 6 USC (10-0) to its best ranking since 1994 entering Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup with No. 2 UCLA (11-0) at 5 p.m. at sold-out Pauley Pavilion. (The Pac-12 opener will be the first time the rivals have met as two undefeated teams and the first time they’ll play as top-10 teams since 1981.)

USC women's basketball player Juju Watkins defends during practice at the Galen Center Thursday.
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb says JuJu Watkins, left, is “like your favorite basketball player’s favorite basketball player.”

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After dominating at Sierra Canyon, where she led the Trailblazers to a Southern Section Open Division title and state title, Watkins announced her arrival to the college scene with 32 points in a season-opening victory over Ohio State. It was the most points for a USC freshman in a debut. Watkins, who was the first Gatorade national player of the year to choose USC since Lisa Leslie in 1990, needed only six games to claim the USC record for most 30-point games by a freshman, surpassing the previous mark of three held by Paula McGee and Leslie. She already has matched Cheryl Miller’s school record for consecutive 30-point games with three.

The 6-foot-2 guard possesses a rare combination of power, athleticism and speed. Watkins can shoot from three, where she leads the team at 46.9%. She attacks the rim, but has the body control to pull up in the midrange. She averages a team-high 3.9 assists, leads the team in steals and is second in blocks. And she’s just 18.

“Her scouting report has to be a page long,” joked Cynthia Cooper, the USC and WNBA legend who won two NCAA titles with the Trojans and four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets.

With Watkins jump-starting the offense, USC is scoring 17.3 points more per game compared to last season when the Trojans rode their defense to their first NCAA tournament bid since 2014. USC is now primed to go to the tournament for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2005-06.

USC freshman guard Juju Watkins stands with her teammates before a recent game at Long Beach State.

USC freshman guard Juju Watkins before a recent game at Long Beach State.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Returning to the postseason was just the first step in Gottlieb’s grand plan to establish USC as a powerhouse in women’s college basketball again. Securing Watkins’ commitment felt like the biggest step.

The top prospect had South Carolina, Stanford and USC in her final three schools. The Cardinal, coached by the legendary Tara VanDerveer, are the only West Coast team to win an NCAA title since 1990. The Gamecocks are the newest college women’s basketball power with two NCAA championships in the past six years, battling 11-time national champion Connecticut for seemingly every top recruit in the country.

Gottlieb knows most recruits would look at those programs with recent championship pedigree and think “how can I not join?” With Watkins paving the way, Gottlieb wants young players to soon ask the same thing about USC.

“That’s power to be able to change that narrative,” said Gottlieb, who has also secured the No. 1 recruiting class for 2024. “I do think JuJu can be that impactful in the way that only a handful of players have ever been.”

Cooper has seen how much just one player can influence a program. When asked for a comparison for Watkins, the two-time WNBA most valuable player who has her No. 44 jersey retired at USC didn’t hesitate.

Miller.

“Definitely,” Cooper said. “The impact that Cheryl made on USC and the impact that JuJu is making at USC currently, their journeys are really the same, or parallel. I think JuJu has an ability to make players around her better. That’s why USC is better. It’s not just because she’s scoring 30 points a game. It’s because she makes the players around her better, which now raises the expectations and now every player that plays at USC women’s basketball, they are expected to bring excellence.”

Although Watkins has been the center of attention since middle school, when Gottlieb started hearing whispers of an eighth-grade phenom on the recruiting circuit, Watkins recoils when asked about her success. She will redistribute congratulations at news conferences to put her teammates first. After dropping a season-best 35 points against Le Moyne, Watkins bashfully covered her face when Gottlieb heaped praise on her game and work ethic.

USC freshman guard Juju Watkins stands with her eyes closed before a recent game at Long Beach State.

“Meeting her, you instantly get this focus, this drive, this quiet curiosity that she has about the game,” WNBA player Jewell Loyd said of USC freshman guard Juju Watkins.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It’s the teenager’s humble nature that first stood out to Jewell Loyd when the two-time WNBA champion was introduced to Watkins through Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy. Handy, Loyd knows, does not give hype easily to young players, so when he reached out to the Seattle Storm star to help guide Watkins, Loyd knew she had to be good. She quickly learned that description didn’t just apply to her extensive array of moves on the court.

“Meeting her, you instantly get this focus, this drive, this quiet curiosity that she has about the game,” said Loyd, who called Watkins a fellow “basketball junkie.” “She wants to leave a legacy and be great. It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘Oh man, the hype is right.’ It was more so that she’s going to be good because of who she is as a person.”

From watching Watkins work behind the scenes, Loyd isn’t surprised by her early dominance in college. It should be expected. She has been training like a pro for years. While still in high school, Watkins was scoring workouts with stars such as Harden, Loyd, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Chelsea Gray.

More trainers are working with the top female players, signaling increased investment in women’s basketball resulting in increasing skill level across the game, but Watkins’ elite company helps her separate from the pack, Loyd said. She’s not just repeating step-back threes and crafty finishes she sees on YouTube. She knows why each move works and when to use it.

“Her skill set is different, as a basketball player, not just as a man or a woman,” said Harden, who noted the rising skill in the women’s game. “That’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s bringing more excitement to the game, college and in the WNBA, so just having somebody from the city of L.A., who is born and raised and putting on for the city and being a woman, is exciting.”

USC, the school that won NCAA titles in 1983 and 1984, has an alumni all-star roster that could rival almost any program. But the Trojans have won only two NCAA tournament games in Watkins’ lifetime.

Now with women’s college basketball enjoying unprecedented popularity, Watkins is the perfect candidate to bring the Trojans back. Her talent could easily dominate at any program, but her decision to stay home drives her rise as a fan favorite almost as much as her sick step-back.

“When I play, I’m playing for my teammates, my coach, my family,” Watkins said, “but also my city.”

The city is reciprocating. USC had its largest crowd since 2010 in its home opener at Galen Center on Nov. 10. Miller, WNBA star Candace Parker, artists YG and Kehlani and actor Kevin Hart are just a few of the marquee names coming to catch the Watkins show. Groups of young players from local teams buy swaths of seats to watch the Trojans. Waving toward those fans after games seems to make Watkins smile wider than almost any other interactions.

While some might shrink from the pressure of carrying their hometown’s hopes, Watkins calls it “an honor” to play in front of her most cherished supporters. The spotlight doesn’t faze her. She has thrived in it for years.

Watkins was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids in 2020. Despite a relatively modest Instagram following of 349,000, she is one of the leading stars in name, image and likeness deals. Her red No. 12 USC jersey was one of four selected by Nike as part of the first batch of jerseys sold with an active college player’s name on it. She reposted a dozen Instagram videos of smiling children unwrapping her jersey for Christmas. Gottlieb’s 6-year-old son Jordan was one of them.

USC women's basketball player Juju Watkins on the court before a recent game at Long Beach State.

USC freshman guard Juju Watkins before a game at Long Beach State on Dec. 18.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Expectations will only continue to rise for Watkins. James knows all about the unique hype machine, but he said he’s never felt the need to give advice to the budding star.

“She’s handled that thing to perfection,” he said.

Watkins wins over fans even after the final horn. After every home game, she’s always the last USC player off the court as she circles the front row of seats, high-fiving every outstretched hand and stopping for selfies with almost every group. She pauses to sign autographs. Fans descend the stairs to get closer.

No doubt she’s this crowd’s favorite player.

Staff writers Andrew Greif and Dan Woike contributed to this report.


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