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USC's Juju Watkins equals future of women's college basketball

Talia-HS-white-300x300by:Talia Goodman05/08/24


Talia Goodman Full Interview with Andy Staples | On3 HER Debut, Women's College Basketball | 05.02.24

JuJu Watkins stepped into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the USC spring football game and was immediately recognized. Despite being on campus for less than a year, the freshman has already become a household name, a celebrity in a city full of them. 

After the first step inside, the whispers start. Then comes the pointing.

Then the requests follow. Selfies and autographs – and the 18-year-old Watkins obliges. A woman comes up to Watkins and asks if she’ll take a picture with her baby. Watkins doesn’t flinch as the baby is thrust into her hands and the mother steps away and snaps a picture. 

This may sound familiar. 

Caitlin Clark, who just finished taking the college basketball world by storm, was recently asked to sign a woman’s ultrasound after joining the Indiana Fever. These outlandish requests are saved for the best of the best – the game changers. Comparisons of Watkins and Clark were brought up throughout the 2023-2024 season. But now that Clark is gone, Watkins has been handed the baton.

She’s next

Juju Watkins set expectations early on at USC

But when asked about herself, Juju Watkins will be the first to mention those who came before her. She credits Clark, Angel Reese and others for the opportunity to try and keep the women’s game in a good spot.

Watkins is almost uncomfortable talking about herself. 

“It’s just a testament to what Caitlin and Angel, Cheryl Miller and Candace Parker, big names like that have done,” Watkins said. “It’s the product of them performing so well and dedicating their craft to the game. I mean, I’m just a product of that, and I’m excited to see what’s going to come for next season.”

At just 17 years old, Watkins arrived at USC with no expectations for what her rookie season would look like despite coming in as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. The Los Angeles native just wanted to play basketball and win games. 

She showed up to one of her first conditioning practices and treated it like it was a national title game. Her best friend and teammate, India Otto, recalled a time in practice when Watkins wasn’t going to make the time during a sprint. She leaped in the air and dove into the sideline to make sure she wouldn’t come up short.

Her work ethic was clear at that moment to her teammates and to USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb

“I was like, okay, we have a chance to be really good,” Gottlieb said. “Because if your most talented player cares enough to do that during a conditioning test, that’s really, really good.” 

The expectations were high from the first game of the season when USC faced off against No. 7 Ohio State in a nationally televised matchup. Watkins didn’t disappoint. 

She scored 32 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists in her first taste of college action. 

“I knew at some point she was gonna be really, really special,” Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said. “And I guess we got the answer to that on day one. She was really, really special. I think that game kind of set the tone for her season.” 

Juju Watkins rewrote record book as a freshman

Juju Watkins continued to dominate game after game. But in early February, she made history. In a road game at Stanford, Watkins set a program record for most points scored in a game. 

51 points. 

“As a freshman, her poise was incredible,” legendary Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She’s just phenomenal. In a college uniform, she’s a pro… She’s easily someone like Caitlin Clark, that people will want to pay money to come see.”

Her 25 first-half points even had Stanford fans on their feet, cheering for the inevitable National Freshman of the Year. Everyone in Maples Pavilion knew they were witnessing something truly special. 

“It was one of those moments that you just very rarely see, no matter how many years that you coach,” Gottlieb said. “To see a talented person transcend all space and time and go into the zone. I mean, it felt like an NBA player being unguardable. … It was one of those times where you just know something magical is happening.” 

Watkins could feel it too. 

“It’s one of the best moments of my career so far,” Watkins said. “In the game, I was just trying to win. Just trying to do whatever it took to win, and I was on fire. I was the first option on the floor that night but honestly, I was just so, so grateful that my teammates and coach trusted me so much to just keep going to me that night because I had a great game. It was just a great experience – one of the best of my career so far.”

Watkins is ready to be focus of future

So far.

This moment came four months into her eventual four-year college career. After that, the Clark comparisons went wild.

But Juju Watkins doesn’t yearn for the comparisons.

“I think that happens a lot in the women’s game,” Watkins said. “Constantly comparing other players and their success. But I don’t think anybody really pays attention to that. Good players can coexist in this space.”

Being compared to Clark on and off the court is a blessing and a curse. Like Clark, she’s not afraid to build her personal brand and NIL deals. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that, too. Not many 18-year-olds are in AT&T commercials with NBA star Joel Embiid. No player garnered the level of national attention Clark has, and Watkins is tasked with keeping that momentum going – an unfair assignment for an 18-year-old. 

“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pressure sometimes,” Watkins said. “Just knowing the attention that’s on women’s basketball right now and trying to make sure that it doesn’t get lost.”

But the pressure she feels never shows. She doesn’t focus on the outside noise – she knows what she’s capable of and continues to demonstrate that on the court. The attention only grows as USC moves into the Big Ten and is featured on national television. USC will be a preseason top-five team and Watkins will have talent around her capable of winning a national title.

Watkins just wants to win

The goal for Watkins isn’t to be the most-watched player or to make the most money in NIL deals, it’s simply to win. 

“The expectation is always to win,” Watkins said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that with these new additions and with our freshmen, we’re contenders for a national championship. That’s always the goal. We’re going to put in the work and really use the summer to get better and build chemistry. The sky is the limit.”

Not just for USC. 

“I think that she’ll go down as the greatest women’s basketball player to live,” added Otto, who just graduated after five seasons at USC. “She’s just unlike anything that we’ve seen before. The focus and sacrifice and dedication and work ethic that she has especially at 18 [years old]. There’s literally no limit for her.”