Column: Windward freshman Juju Watkins could be a game changer in girls’ basketball
As a 14-year-old freshman, Juju Watkins of Los Angeles Windward is on her way to becoming the most influential girls’ basketball player in Southern California.
Watkins, 6 feet tall and still growing, is averaging 21.1 points a game, something Windward’s last two McDonald’s All-Americans, Jordin Canada and Charisma Osborne, never did at such a young age.
She has a rare talent for girls’ basketball — the ability to create her own shot anywhere on the court.
“I haven’t seen it at the high school level,” coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “She’s not normal. She’s a game changer on the women’s side. We’re doing totally new things as a team because of her skill set.”
Because of Watkins’ size, athleticism and physicality, there’s no position she can’t play, whether it’s center, forward or point guard. She makes threes or posts up inside and overpowers a defender with her strength. She has the ability to pull down a rebound and dribble the length of the court and has started working on scoring off an alley-oop pass.
“I feel like I’ve had that sense of diversity since I started playing,” Watkins said. “My parents always taught me, ‘You’re tall. That’s great but we want you to explore other aspects of the game.’”
Her mother, Sari, played basketball at Washington Prep. Her father, Robert Neal, played at Verbum Dei. Her basketball days began when an uncle put her in a park league as a 7-year-old.
Her great-grandfather was Ted Watkins Sr., who founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to provide jobs and social services after the 1965 Watts riots. Watkins practices in the gym at Ted Watkins Sr. Memorial Park near her home.
The big family news is she beat her mother in a game of one-on-one for the first time when she was 12 and finally beat her father last year.
“That took some time,” she said. “My dad is a bit of shooter. You have to play up on him.”
Her dream is to change the game by the way she plays the game.
“I look at women now and see how the game is evolving,” she said. “Everybody is developing new ways of playing. It’s a dream to be a role model and have others looking up to me.”
Watkins started this season as more of a role player because of her youth. Then Nygaard realized she needed to be turned loose. The offense changed, giving Watkins more opportunities to handle the ball and create shots.
Windward (23-4) opened pool play in the Southern Section Open Division playoffs on Saturday night by pulling out a 67-65 win over Corona Centennial when Ally Lopez made a basket in the final seconds.
The Wildcats are mostly a young team that figures to be a force this season and beyond. Junior Michelle Duchemin is a top athlete, having won the Southern Section Division 4 high jump championship last season. Senior McKayla Williams has been a four-year standout headed to Gonzaga. Watkins has blended in perfectly after earning rave reviews in middle school at Windward.
“It’s a challenge,” she said of the high school game. “I feel being consistent with your performance and effort and putting in the hours and being a team player on the floor is really important.”
Her rise is no secret. Alicia Komaki, coach of No. 1-seeded Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, said, “She’s incredibly dominant. It’s really, really hard to guard her because of her size and physicality. She’s definitely exceptional.”
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