JuJu Watkins, women’s basketball’s next big star, is ready for her close-up

JuJu Watkins, women’s basketball’s next big star, is ready for her close-up

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

LAS VEGAS — Prodigies tend to make a mockery of age, appearing far older, wiser and more talented than their birth dates would suggest. In the case of JuJu Watkins, the 18-year-old women’s basketball star, the word “freshman” on her University of Southern California biography reads like an embarrassing typo or a baldfaced lie.

Watkins’s game is so polished she could be confused for a 28-year-old WNBA all-star. Like a pro, the physical 6-foot-2 guard skates smoothly around on-ball defenders and focuses on reading the helpers that crowd her path to the hoop. She uncorks practiced Euro-step layups, rhythmic turnaround jumpers, split-second pull-ups and cheeky pump fakes that cause opponents to elevate against their will. Unlike many standout teenage scorers, Watkins makes an impact on defense, too. She fights over the top of screens, moves well laterally to defend drives and uses quick hands to force turnovers and register deflections.

During a hard-fought win over Arizona this month in the Pac-12 tournament, Watkins took a shot to the face, which led to a noticeable bump on her head, and bled from her elbow after another skirmish. Despite the mounting carnage, she maintained a typically stony visage and blinked a few times to clear her eyes, only indulging in a brief smile once she had banked in the game-sealing basket and the final buzzer had sounded.

This competitive composure was further evidence that Watkins, who leads USC into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed in the Portland 3 Region, has shattered the typical developmental curve. In a field headlined by well-known upperclassmen such as Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and Cameron Brink, Watkins will get the opportunity to stake her claim as the next face of the women’s college game. And with an experienced roster surrounding their brilliant centerpiece, the Trojans have a chance to reach their first Final Four in nearly 40 years.

“I’m not going to lie,” Watkins said. “I didn’t think this would happen this soon. Better than anything I ever could have hoped for, really.”

The Watts, Calif., native is ahead of schedule, but she is hardly a newcomer.

Watkins emerged as the top-ranked player in her class at Sierra Canyon High, where she won a state title and earned multiple national player of the year honors. When she chose to stay close to home and play for USC, her talent suggested it would be a matter of when, not if, she returned the long-dormant Trojans to prominence. Though USC hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since Watkins was eight months old, she has guided an overnight turnaround.

In her first game, Watkins tallied 32 points, six rebounds and five assists to beat Ohio State. In her fifth game, she hit a half-court buzzer-beater to end the first half and sliced through three defenders for a game-winning layup against Penn State. USC rolled to a 10-0 start, and the momentum only accelerated from there: Last month, Watkins poured in a program-record 51 points in a road win over Stanford and scored 42 points to beat Colorado.

USC’s average home attendance at Galen Center more than tripled compared with last season, with Trojans legend Cheryl Miller, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and comedian Kevin Hart joining the swelling home crowds. As Watkins challenged scoring benchmarks set by Lisa Leslie, the USC icon saluted her toughness and local roots.

Indeed, USC’s downtown arena is just seven miles from Ted Watkins Memorial Park, where Watkins honed her craft during childhood. Ted Watkins, JuJu’s great-grandfather, was a Watts community leader who sought to provide affordable housing, medical facilities and employment opportunities in the predominantly Black neighborhood, which experienced civil unrest in response to police mistreatment in 1965.

“My father felt like he was planting flowers,” Tim Watkins, JuJu’s grandfather, said in a USC video feature. “Just because Beverly Hills has outdoor arts, sculptures, fountains and so on, didn’t mean that Watts couldn’t have it. … [JuJu’s] spirit is so pure, and my father had a pure spirit. If she’s in her books or at the hoop, she doesn’t have a lot of other silliness going on. It’s extraordinary. I haven’t seen such a person — outside of my experience with my father.”

USC (26-5) sprinted to the finish by winning 12 of its final 13 games, including an impressive Pac-12 tournament title run that saw victories over Arizona, UCLA (in double overtime) and Stanford. The Trojans enter the NCAA tournament ranked third in the Associated Press poll, the program’s first top-five ranking since Leslie was a senior in 1993-94 and its highest ranking since Miller was a senior in 1985-86, the last time USC reached the Final Four.

Watkins has averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, earning spots on the all-Pac-12 team and the conference’s all-defensive team. The only player to average more points this season than Watkins was Clark, a 22-year-old senior. However, Watkins surpassed Clark’s freshman mark (799 points) and enters the tournament with 810 points, giving her a chance to unseat Kelsey Mitchell (873 points) as the highest-scoring freshman in NCAA women’s history.

“We believe she’s the best [freshman] in the country,” USC Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “It’s not because anyone else is lower; it’s because she’s that good.”

Opposing coaches rain compliments upon Watkins in news conferences and prove their words aren’t lip service with defensive schemes designed to neutralize her at all costs. Arizona’s Adia Barnes deployed box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses during the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, saying afterward that “the only good thing” about the conference’s impending dissolution was that the Wildcats wouldn’t have to face Watkins as often in the future.

“She has good size, she’s dynamic, and she can handle the ball,” Barnes said. “She’s an athlete and does a really good job of creating space. She’s able to go downhill at will. If you put a smaller guard [on her], she’ll post you. If you put a bigger player [on her], she’ll pull you outside. Thank God she’s going to a different league.”

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the winningest women’s coach in NCAA history, went to even more extreme measures, shadowing Watkins with extra defensive attention throughout the Pac-12 tournament title game in hopes of preventing another 51-point explosion. VanDerveer won the battle but lost the war, holding Watkins, who was battling an ankle injury, to a season-low nine points (on 2-for-15 shooting) in USC’s 74-61 victory. McKenzie Forbes and the Trojans’ supporting cast made Stanford pay for devoting so many resources to stopping Watkins, whom VanDerveer hailed as a “generational talent.”

“[Stanford] came out with a defense that I’ve never seen,” Gottlieb said after leading USC to its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014. “There was not one, not two, not three — five people around [Watkins] because of the respect they have for her.”

Gottlieb, a Brown graduate, has lovingly referred to her team’s core as “JuJu and the nerds” — a nod to USC’s three graduate transfers from Ivy League schools. If the Pac-12 tournament was any indication, the Trojans will need to toggle between a Watkins-centric offense and a more balanced approach if they expect to make a deep NCAA run. USC ranks 31st in offensive efficiency — well below fellow title contenders Iowa, South Carolina, Connecticut, Stanford and LSU — and Watkins leads the nation with a 43.2 usage rate, topping even Clark.

Many good things happen with Watkins at the wheel, but she struggled to make the proper reads and committed some careless turnovers when defenses swarmed her during the Pac-12 tournament. She also must prepare for unforgiving NCAA tournament opponents to attempt to wear her down with handsy pressure and hard fouls.

“This is my first March,” Watkins said. “I’m being thrown in the fire. I’m taking it one day at a time, but it’s just a great feeling regardless of the physicality and whatever is going on. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

While Watkins boasts more than 440,000 Instagram followers and sports a signature “bun” hairstyle that has caught on among young girls nationwide, she hasn’t yet been engulfed by the frenzy that follows Clark. During the Pac-12 tournament, the top bowl of MGM Grand Garden Arena was curtained off as a result of the healthy, but not overwhelming, ticket demand.

Fame is a fickle beast that doesn’t always reward the most deserving, yet Watkins’s popularity appears destined for explosive growth. The Pac-12 Network is the Bermuda Triangle of sports, and USC’s move to the Big Ten next season will dramatically increase her visibility. What’s more, Clark, Brink and probably Reese will be off to the WNBA, thereby setting up Watkins for a larger share of the spotlight in the booming women’s college game.

Clark’s imminent departure and Watkins’s sensational start have prompted comparisons between the two stars, who share a rare ability to command the action but operate in very different manners. Clark is a far better outside shooter and a more gifted passer who thrives in transition; Watkins is a more explosive finisher with a more powerful on-ball presence who prefers to work deliberately. If Iowa, the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 Region, and USC both avoid upsets, Clark and Watkins would meet in a national semifinal at the Final Four in Cleveland.

Network executives would surely welcome such a showdown, just as television personalities have seemed eager to facilitate a passing of the baton. Shortly after Watkins put the finishing touches on her 51-point night, a Pac-12 Network broadcaster gleefully quipped: “Caitlin Clark who?” Without missing a beat, Watkins replied: “Nah, don’t do that. Don’t do that. Much respect there.”

The elegant evasion was another example of Watkins’s maturity, but it only bought her so much time. When Clark passed Pete Maravich to become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer on March 3, Fox Sports’ excitable play-by-play commentator Gus Johnson couldn’t help himself.

“Folks, I hope you had a chance to see this record-breaking game,” Johnson said. “For those of you that didn’t … don’t worry. Because if JuJu Watkins stays in school at USC, we’re going to have another new record in the next three years. JuJu: We’re coming to see you, young lady.”

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