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Juju Watkins, not Bronny James, is the star at Sierra Canyon High media day

Juju Watkins participants in Sierra Canyon High basketball media day.
Watkins participants in Sierra Canyon High basketball media day in 2022.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
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In her lowest point last season, tears welling in her eyes while in a handshake line after a Southern Section Open Division championship loss, Sierra Canyon High’s Juju Watkins turned to her roots.

The Trailblazers lost that late-February game to Etiwanda, a strong start from Watkins marred by foul trouble, and she needed to recover. Get her head straight. So before the Trailblazers went to regionals and eventually won a state title, The Times’ 2021-22 girls’ basketball player of the year went back to her hometown in Watts, where she’d spent her entire life before transferring to Sierra Canyon in the summer.

“That was a moment I needed to go home,” Watkins told The Times on Thursday at Sierra Canyon’s media day, “and spend time with my family.”

When she’s faced adversity in this new phase of her journey, Watts grounds her. She goes back to her grandma’s house, gets some home cooking, sees the aunties and cousins who put a smile on her face.

And as the top 2023 college recruit sees the world expand in her senior year at Sierra Canyon — fresh off a new megadeal with Nike (alongside Bronny James) — her home is still at the front of her mind.

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“Basketball’s going to take me everywhere around the world, I realize,” Watkins said. “But it’s important for me and my family to never forget where I come from.”

Media day was primed to be Bronny James’ night in the spotlight, LeBron James’ four-star son fresh off his 18th birthday and entering a senior year that will be ablaze with speculation about college and pro plans. But although his name was printed on a list of planned speakers, coach Andre Chevalier climbed the stage and told media members James wouldn’t be speaking, not specifying a reason.

Junior Marcus and freshman Maxie Adams will help Gauchos in City Section basketball.

Oct. 10, 2022

James was made available to media just once last season, a brief window after Sierra Canyon played at Staples Center.

So even as James was present, posing for photos and leisurely tossing up shots alongside his teammates, Watkins stole the show — just as she’s done ever since she transferred from Windward High.

In her opening statement, girls’ basketball coach Alicia Komaki announced the team would open with games Nov. 18 and 19 televised by ESPN before heading out-of-state to continue play, she said with a smirk, “the Juju Watkins senior-year tour.”

“What’s the role for Juju this year?” Komaki said, repeating a question asked of her at the podium. “To dominate.”

Watkins did plenty of that last year, averaging 24.8 points and 10.3 rebounds a game to lead the Trailblazers to a state title. The team’s motto this year, Komaki said, is “good to great.” If last year was Watkins’ good, great could mean feats rarely seen before in California prep basketball.

“My mentality is to always go a little further and push myself a little further,” Watkins said. “Me being blessed enough to receive things like the Nike deal and Gatorade player of the year, that just makes me want to see how far I can go.”

Watkins intends to go to college, she confirmed, and will decide among three schools in November. She declined to specify which programs.

Last season brought change. Brought a new, star-studded roster. Brought pressure of playing in the spotlight and uncharted playoff territory. So the support of her family, her backbone, was needed, she said.

Still is. But now, she’s familiar with it all.

“I know what I need to do,” Watkins said.

So the question of her senior year: Just how high can the kid from Watts soar?

Healthy rivalry

Sometimes, junior Mackenly Randolph said, the Sierra Canyon girls’ and boys’ basketball teams will share a court at practice, playing at opposite ends. And the girls will always try to be louder.

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“So y’all really know,” Randolph said, “who the big dogs are.”

Even with the state title last year, Randolph said, the girls don’t always feel like they get their proper due — the presence of a much-hyped boys’ roster casting a shadow.

“I’m like, did y’all win state?” Randolph said of the boys’ team, which lost in the Open Division regional final last year to Corona Centennial. “Like, y’all lost. They can’t even talk about us, because we won state and they’re waiting on Bronny to carry them.”

The comments weren’t malicious, just good old-fashioned razzing; Randolph palled around with James at the close of media day. But sometimes, Komaki mused, her players do notice an imbalance in attention “under the microscope in their own environment.”

“I don’t know if unfair is ever the word, but yeah, it’s crazy — I mean, we have a very, very good basketball team,” Komaki said. “Do we maybe not get all the recognition we deserve? Maybe. I don’t really know who’s the judge of those things. I think we also get plenty. So things could be worse.”

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