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The Times’ girls’ basketball player of the year: Juju Watkins

Windward's Juju Watkins brings the ball up court against Mater Dei's Caia Elisaldez.
Freshman Juju Watkins of Windward is The Times’ girls’ basketball player of the year.
(Nick Koza / For The Times)

Rarely in Southern California high school girls’ basketball has there been a 14-year-old freshman with the skills and talent of Juju Watkins.

“She’s phenomenal,” her coach, Vanessa Nygaard, said. “Her potential is unknown. Combined with the incredible skill set she has, it’s exciting for us, for her and women’s basketball.”

Watkins averaged 21 points and nine rebounds for Los Angeles Windward, which lost to Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Section Open Division championship game and to La Jolla Country Day in the Southern California regional final. Each time, Watkins did her best to inspire teammates.

Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan said he believes Watkins will be a U.S. Olympian after facing her at The Pyramid when she scored 28 points.

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For the impact she made and her ability to perform consistently at a high level in games against top opponents, Watkins has been selected The Times’ girls’ basketball player of the year.

She’s 6 feet and still growing. She comes from the same school that produced McDonald’s All-Americans Jordin Canada and Charisma Osborne. Every sign indicates Watkins is destined for the same achievement.

“I guess I was blessed with the ability,” Watkins said.

Nygaard did not make Watkins a primary part of Windward’s offense to start the season. That quickly changed when she realized how calm, cool and consistent Watkins could be in her first year of high school basketball.

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“She has big-moment blood,” Nygaard said. “The times we needed to make a run, she’s ready and she wants the ball in her hand and makes big plays. She’s really strong.”

Nygaard remembers a game in which Watkins came up to her and complained about the defense, saying, “Coach, they’re pinching me.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, they are.’ Face guarding, box-and-one, that’s the ultimate compliment,” Nygaard said. “People were doing everything to stop her — push her, hold her, face guard her — and for being 14, she handled it well.”

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