Column: Juju Watkins of Sierra Canyon leads a talent surge in Southland girls’ basketball
Girls’ basketball in Southern California has enjoyed periodic moments on the national stage, most notably when Cheryl Miller was at Riverside Poly in the 1980s and Lisa Leslie was at Inglewood Morningside in the late 1980s before they became Hall of Famers.
Now there’s a real surge of high school talent fueling the rise of top teams, along with a potential future Hall of Famer in junior Juju Watkins, who has taken her talents to Chatsworth Sierra Canyon after starring the last two seasons at Los Angeles Windward.
“There’s been talent all the time in Southern California, but I think where we’re at right now, it’s scary how much talent there is,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki said.
It starts with Watkins, who is considered the No. 1 college prospect for the class of 2023. She earned MVP honors at the 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in leading Team USA to a gold medal. She’s 6 feet and can play any position on the court.
“I’ve been working on everything,” she said. “I’m going to be playing point guard a lot, so that’s an area I’m looking to improve on.”
UCLA has signed two talented Southland seniors in Londynn Jones of Corona Centennial and Gabriella Jaquez of Camarillo. Jones averaged 21.3 points for 25-1 Centennial last season. Jaquez, the sister of UCLA men’s basketball standout Jaime Jaquez, averaged 27.4 points and 15.0 rebounds.
La Jolla Country Day from San Diego County also could be a state contender with the transfer of UCLA recruit Jada Williams from Missouri. Sierra Canyon has two top sophomores in Mackenly Randolph and Izela Arenas, the daughters of former NBA players Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas. Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda returns talented sophomore Kennedy Smith.
Centennial lost to Santa Ana Mater Dei in last season’s Southern Section Open Division championship game before beating the Monarchs in the state regional final. The Huskies have no player taller than 5-9 and rely on five guards. They are the team to beat with Jones and Loyola Marymount-bound Layla Curry.
One newcomer to watch is Calabasas Viewpoint, which returns all five starters from a team that tied Sierra Canyon and Windward for first place in the Gold Coast League last season. Point guard Kayla Keshmeshian is headed to Nicholls State.
All is not well in girls’ basketball, though. Several coaches voiced concern about losing players to other sports and seeing a decrease in lower-level participation, forcing schools to drop junior varsity or freshman teams. West Hills Chaminade coach Megan Kelso said COVID-19 protocols also could be a reason for less participation. She had 43 players for the three levels in 2019-20. She’s down to 16 for varsity this season.
“The requirements for the indoor sports are harder,” she said.
Others warn that increasing numbers of transfers and holdbacks, part of the boys’ scene for years, is picking up momentum in girls’ basketball.
“You can see it trending that way. You feel in five years it could be that way,” said one girls’ coach who asked for anonymity to avoid offending other programs.
Fullerton Troy lost out on having transfer student Hannah Stines, a Washington signee, when she was declared ineligible by the Southern Section after playing last season for Orangewood Academy. She’s appealing the decision.
Here are 10 girls’ basketball teams from the Southland to watch this upcoming season.
Watkins won’t be eligible to play for Sierra Canyon until Dec. 26 because of transfer rules. Until then, teammates will be getting better by practicing against her. She scored 44 points and had 22 rebounds for Windward against Sierra Canyon last season, so imagine what Komaki is feeling like with Watkins on her side.
“The skill set is incredible to have that speed, that athleticism, that touch around the basket, can shoot the three,” Komaki said. “She’s definitely the most talented kid I’ve coached or seen. The scary part … how young she is and she’s getting better. We’re going to use her at all positions. My job is to make her skill set shine.”
The girls’ scene also features two WNBA coaches. Vanessa Nygaard returns to Windward after spending last season as an assistant WNBA coach in Las Vegas. Noelle Quinn, the head coach of the Seattle Storm, will coach Torrance Bishop Montgomery in a “collaborative effort,” she said. Chloe Williams, a 6-2 senior who signed with Tulsa, should make Bishop Montgomery a team to watch.
And perhaps the most amazing story of all is that Burbank Burroughs coach Vicky Oganyan, in her 18th season as coach, is back coaching and playing basketball for Glendale College simultaneously at age 42. If you reach her on the phone, consider yourself lucky. She also teaches biology at Burroughs.
It sets the stage for a memorable season of girls’ basketball.
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