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‘There’s no place like home’: Juju Watkins ready to shine at USC

By Chris Gionta

As a preteen, Judea “Juju” Watkins was determined to increase her commitment to the game of basketball. To get to the skill level she wanted to reach, she could not do it on her own.

Where her game began to significantly grow was not from a basketball camp or a workout program. It started how it does for many young basketball players — in the back yard with Dad.

“When I was 12 — around that age — I started to get really serious about [basketball], and my dad would take his time training me,” Watkins said.

Even after she became a FIBA U17 gold medalist as well as the most sought-after high school girls recruit in the country, her training routine remained unchanged.

“It’s the same to this date,” Watkins said. “My dad is my trainer, so he works with me on my shot, handles — the fundamentals are what’s key, and that’s what my dad’s teaching me every day.”

ESPN and USA Today both rank Watkins as the No. 1 girls high school basketball recruit. She is a senior at Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, Calif., and on Nov. 15, 2022, she announced her commitment to the University of Southern California.

Her commitment made national news, as ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted about the announcement to his five million-plus followers.

Watkins’ declaration for Southern California ended a long run of communication with different universities. Colleges began reaching out to her when she was 12 years old. The idea of a middle-schooler being contacted by high-profile universities can be overwhelming, but the Watkinses had everything under control.

“I got a lot of letters, and we had a lot of calls, but my mom did her best to kind of filter the process out, and protect me from it,” Watkins said. “Especially at a young age, I was just trying to play basketball and not really think about college, so she did a great job helping me maintain focus on the main things.”

What Watkins was focusing on was taking over the girls basketball national landscape. It resulted in her playing for the U16 and U17 USA basketball teams, winning the 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship MVP and the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup MVP.

As a junior at Sierra Canyon, she averaged a double-double, with 24.5 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game. The Trailblazers also won the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division State Championship under Watkins’s wing.

While that all occurred, her parents were making a major impact. Whether it was Watkins’s father, Robert, contributing to her training regimen or her mother, Sari, handling communication with the top basketball schools in the country, her family was crucial in the pivotal years of her life.

“Their help is much-needed and much-appreciated,” Watkins said. “And that’s on a daily basis, so I’m just grateful that I have them as my support system, and I don’t know what I would do without them, because I would be so overwhelmed.”

Along with all of that, Watkins also underwent a change of scenery. She did not initially go to Sierra Canyon, but with things not going how she wanted at her first high school, she looked elsewhere. She officially transferred to play for the Trailblazers for her junior year.

“There’s more of a family aspect with this team that I appreciate,” Watkins said. “We’re a really close-knit team, and I never really experienced that before on my other teams. So, just to add to the friendship and the chemistry aspect of it on and off the court has really helped my experience with basketball — especially high school basketball.”

Luckily for Watkins, Sierra Canyon head coach Alicia Komaki had a lot of knowledge of the guard prior to her arrival to the school. Komaki was the middle school athletic director for Sierra Canyon, and watched Watkins play against her middle school basketball team.

“We were in the same league in middle school and high school,” Komaki said. “She’s been a local kid and on the basketball team since seventh grade, and we’ve known about her since sixth grade.”

Komaki knew she stood out early on.

“She was always very physically gifted, and kind of ahead of all of her peers in that regard — both in skill and physicality,” Komaki said.

“Generally, when you see young phenoms who are gifted in those ways, usually, eventually, other kids start to catch up, but she’s kind of continued her dominance by adding to her skill set. She’s one of the best athletes, and physical athletes we’ve seen in a while.”

Sierra Canyon is very happy to have Watkins on the team considering what she brings to the table. Her skill set is on full display, and anyone watching can notice there is something special happening on that court.

“[What stands out most] is the fact that she can take over in a bunch of different aspects of the game,” Komaki said. “So, she can dominate a game just by rebounding, which is pretty impressive. She can dominate a game by shooting a three. She can dominate a game by her mid-range. She can dominate the game at the rim.”

In Watkins’s much-anticipated decision around her college choice, she ultimately committed to a place less than 40 miles from the high school she currently attends. The decision did not come with ease, as there was a wide array of options for Watkins. However, Southern California’s strong and consistent communication made an impression on her.

“As far as the recruiting process, they were always persistent with me,” Watkins said. “They never really fell off as far as pursuing me, while some other schools did. And they stuck it out until the very end — my decision was kind of late compared to everybody else, so they were just there for the whole ride, and I really appreciate them for that.”

Her choice to stay close to home seems appropriate, as home has always been a large part of who she is. In fact, in her commitment video, she stated, “There’s no place like home.”

While under the lights of the Galen Center, with potentially 10,000 pairs of eyes gazed upon her, she knows she will still just be a short drive away from another training session with her father.

Photo Courtesy Just Women’s Sports

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