Everyone can’t stop staring at Juju Watkins. It’s January, and we’re with the USC freshman star outside of the Galen Center. There’s a long line of people waiting at the ticket booth in anticipation for tonight’s men’s volleyball matchup against Harvard, but they can’t help looking over at us in curiosity. As the sun sets over downtown L.A. and legendary photographer Atiba Jefferson is snapping away, Watkins is in her element and serving looks while rocking a knitted cropped gray sweater and cargo pants with a pair of Js. It’s giving major California dreamin’ vibes when, suddenly out of nowhere, someone driving in a car nearby screams out the window.
“We love you Jujuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!”
Now all eyes really are on Watkins. She smiles and humbly laughs it off—later she admits that it could’ve been a teammate or something. “I don’t know what that was,” Watkins says, while sitting on the team’s practice court. “That might have been my teammate honestly just trolling me. Sometimes I get recognized, but not too often.”
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Yeah, OK. While she might be humble about all the attention, there’s a reason everyone calls her “The Juju Show.” Watkins was so big time in high school, Chris Brown and 2 Chainz would pull up to her games at Sierra Canyon to watch her play. The No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2023 has had legends like LeBron James, whose son Bronny is currently a freshman on the USC men’s team, and USC all-time great Cheryl Miller, as well as fellow California natives James Harden and Paul George, give her nothing but high praise. Step onto the USC campus, and you’ll see her No. 12 jersey in the school bookstore.
“I’ve always dreamt of playing for a college that I love and being able to have so much pride in where I go to college,” she tells us. “To finally be here and have made that decision and be confident [in it] is a dream come true.”
Right outside, there’s a newsstand with copies of the Daily Trojan, and the very first thing we notice is that the main photo in the sports section is Watkins dribbling down the court with the caption, “USC will need a big game from her to pull off the upset against the Bruins.”
She did that and more. A few days after her SLAM cover shoot, Juju dropped a double-double in a win against UCLA in front of a record-breaking 10,657 fans. Her 32 points and 10 boards earned her Associated Press National Player of the Week and the Tamika Catchings National Freshman of the Week. May we remind you: she’s only 18 years old, and yes, she’s already a bucket-getting-dime-dropping-silky-smooth guard with a game so fluid and pro-ready, it’s mesmerizing to watch.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. Actually, nah, let’s. That’s what the sports world does with every promising young player, and to keep it real, no one ever hesitates to declare the dudes the next big things. After all, didn’t the world start calling LeBron “The Chosen One” back when he was in high school? Speaking of which, even he’s declared Juju is the future: “She’s the next greatest thing in women’s basketball,” he said in the Los Angeles Times.
As she leads a renaissance of L.A. hoops and a new era of freshman stars, Watkins also represents why women’s sports is not just important to support and invest in, but exciting and special.
“I think women’s basketball is constantly evolving, so just to be a part of that and be in that mix is an honor.”
It was just three years ago when we were in the gym with a 15-year-old Juju and her pops, Robert, to film her “Day in the Life.” Growing up in the neighborhood of Watts, Watkins was dropping 30 pieces at just 6 years old and was already so dominant that in the middle of a game, a younger boy literally picked her up and tried to take her off the court because he couldn’t guard her. She’d play in the Westchester Park rec league, and according to Robert, would even get “upset” whenever they’d play one-on-one.
“That’s when I knew she had it,” he told us. “When she started getting mad.”
Today, Watkins plays with that same fire, but she’s learned to channel it into a competitiveness that’s lethal every time she steps on the floor. She transforms into a different person, she admits, who is drastically different from the laid-back, chill one she is off the court. “Honestly, I just think basketball brings out another side to me. [I’m] very mellow off the court,” she says. “Sometimes it’s too much. Screaming, all that, that’s not really me.”
The world saw that side of her right from the jump in her college debut against Ohio State. Amid a 32-point performance, Watkins was clapping and screaming in excitement after finishing tough layups at the rim. When the win was secured, there she was again, chest-bumping her teammates. Her performance broke Lisa Leslie’s freshman debut scoring record (30). “I think coming into [my] freshman season, I didn’t really have too many expectations for myself,” Watkins says. “I think just getting my feet wet, I guess as people would say. But now that I’m finally in it, I’m setting more goals for myself and expect more for myself. But honestly, at the end of the day, [it’s] just having fun.”
She’d break another record held by Leslie just six games in, this time for most 30-point games by a USC freshman in program history. She also led the Trojans to a record of 6-0 and their highest AP Top 25 ranking (No. 6) in 29 years. Here’s another crazy stat for you: after a win against Cal Poly, Juju had posted 161 points, 45 rebounds, 19 assists, 14 steals and 8 blocks for the season. According to OptaSTATS, in the last 20 years, only one other NBA, WNBA or Division I men’s or women’s player has put up numbers like that over a six-game span. Guess who it was? LeBron Raymone James.
As of press time, Watkins is posting 26.1 ppg, ranked just below Caitlin Clark for highest average in the nation. For Juju, bringing a winning culture to USC has always been the goal.
“I think I just want to really instill a winning culture here at SC, I think that’s what’s most important—that when my teammates and I leave, SC is still thriving and doing really well,” she says. “[I want to] just make sure that L.A. women’s basketball is always on top and really represent the West Coast and where I’m from [in] Watts.”
Legacy is synonymous with the Watkins family: Watkins Memorial Park is named after her great-grandfather, a local civil rights leader who founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Juju grew up playing either in her family’s backyard or at the Watts gym, which is also named after him. Both her father and mother, Sari, were athletes in high school and raised Juju to be the best at whatever she did. They also gave her the middle name Skies, fitting given that their daughter would one day play at the same institution as the Hall of Famer Miller, who once said that for Juju, “The sky’s the limit,” per the Associated Press.
“[My mom] loved Lisa and Cheryl, she grew up in that era,” says Watkins. Upon watching the Women of Troy documentary with her mom, she got to see just how “inspiring” players like Miller, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and fellow L.A.-native Tina Thompson truly were, and still are. “It’s really a sisterhood here,” she says. “I love that I can call on them whenever and they’re there for me. I appreciate that.”
Miller and Cooper-Dyke both helped bring the two—and only—basketball championships the Trojans program has ever won (1983, 1984). Those banners are hanging just above the practice court, in clear view from where Watkins is sitting right now. When we ask her about what kind of legacy she wants to leave at USC, Watkins emphasizes bringing USC women’s basketball back to the top. But she’s also thinking bigger. Dreaming bigger. It’s not just about her, but about the next generation.
“I owe a lot of my success to my family and my city, and I’m just planning on doing as much as I can for kids growing up in the same city as me and all around L.A.,” she says, “showing [them] that or being a testament to what can happen when you just work hard and follow your dreams.”
JUJU WATKINS SLAM 248 COVER TEES AVAILABLE NOW!
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson. Action photo via Getty Images.