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Juju Watkins’ star grows brighter with Sierra Canyon basketball

Juju Watkins averaged 24.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a junior last season, her first season with Sierra Canyon. (Garrett W. Ellwood/USA Basketball)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series previewing the top five girls basketball players in the Class of 2023. The series counts down to No. 1 and aligns with the start of the 2022-23 high school season. Click here to see the latest rankings from the Class of 2023. Counting down: No. 5 Hannah Hidalgo | No. 4 Aalyah Del Rosario | No. 3 Jadyn Donovan | No. 2 Juju Watkins | No. 1 Mikaylah Williams.

Juju Watkins has earned every second of her time in the spotlight. The 17-year-old’s skill set is still unfolding, but what she’s already revealed has been impressive enough to attract attention from the nation’s top college basketball programs and beyond.

As a junior, in her first season with California juggernaut Sierra Canyon, Watkins averaged 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per game.

Most transfers would need more time to get acclimated to a new culture, but Watkins credits Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki and the rest of her teammates for easing that transition process.

“Coach Komaki and the team made it easy for me,” Watkins said. “I think that type of environment made it easier for me to adapt. They made me feel very welcome and supported, and that’s the type of environment I strive in the most.”

The 6-foot-2 guard has started each of the 13 games she’s played in a Team USA jersey while averaging double figures in scoring across two gold-medal summers. And in the early days of NIL rights at the NCAA level, Watkins has managed to stand out in a sea of high school and college athletes looking to curate their brands.

Juju Watkins has already been recognized as the 2022 Los Angeles Times Player of the Year, Gatorade California Girls Basketball Player of the Year and California Ms. Basketball, but she’s only getting started.

Coach’s analysis

Each year, Komaki chooses a team motto. This year, it’s “good to great” — reflective of the Sierra Canyon mentality.

Last year, Sierra Canyon finished as not only the top program in the state of California but also a top-five program in the country, and yet the team has accepted that they were simply good, not great.

Watkins has spent only one season on the court for Sierra Canyon, but she wasted no time embedding herself in the team culture. According to Komaki, many of those traits were already inherent to Watkins.

“We’re a very big cultural program,” Komaki said. “One of the reasons we forget [she’s not been here all four years] is she came in and quickly adapted to everything that we do. We get kids as freshmen, and it usually takes three to four years; a lot of our leadership usually comes from the seniors and the juniors.

“It’s an attribution to her and who she is that she’s been able to be a leader on our team despite only being here for a year. It’s actually very impressive that she can grasp a lot of our values and concepts we teach. That’s what we breed here. This is a character-driven culture. We breed great teammates. All the things we preach on a daily basis, she just kind of fit right in.”

It’s Watkins’ unique brand of competitiveness that most impresses Komaki.

“I don’t think there’s anybody like her,” Komaki said. “I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve been fortunate to coach some of the best players, but also coach against some of the best players throughout the nation. She is as high as it gets. She brings her competitiveness to everything. She ups that factor of competing on a daily basis, which again, is a big staple of our program.

“But I think she accelerated the type of competitiveness that you really need to compete at a high level.”

The Sierra Canyon coaching staff — and any coaching staff that’s had to plan for Watkins — is never sure what to expect from Watkins.

“There’s a lot of really talented, skilled athletes out there who just play the same way all the time, and they’re great. But with Juju, you don’t know what you’re getting that day,” Komaki said. “She might make seven 3s that day. She might score 40 points in the paint that day. She might get to the free-throw line 20 times that day.

“You just don’t know because she reads defenses and she does whatever she needs to do to score.”

Catching up

Watkins is one of 11 returners for Sierra Canyon. She believes in the team’s ability to win another state title but understands the difficulty in doing so.

“We want to be a great team this year,” Watkins said. “We want to focus on all the small details that are going to be crucial for us to win another championship. I do feel like it’s going to be harder to win a championship this year.”

On an individual level, Watkins is proud of the work she’s done to improve her game.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better with my passing,” Watkins said. “That’s something I’m definitely looking forward to this season, to take some of the attention off me offensively and get my teammates more involved.”

In July, Watkins was named the MVP at the FIBA U17 World Cup after averaging 13.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game for Team USA in Debrecen, Hungary.

“USA always helps me to be more independent,” Watkins said. “That’s an opportunity for me to lock in on basketball. You’re responsible for yourself in a lot of ways, and that’s something I’ve gotten used to the second time around. It’s taught me how to play with 10 other All-Americans — just guarding them every day and getting better on defense and them guarding me every day and getting better on offense.

“I’ve learned a lot from coach Sue [Phillips] and from my peers. They’ve pushed me to get better. I do the same for them. It’s a summer where you can completely get better, learn new things and raise your IQ.”

Watkins is expected to make her college choice during the early signing period, which begins Wednesday and lasts one week, according to the L.A. Times. She’s narrowed her choice down to three schools but has declined to specify which programs.

Off the court, Watkins has made national headlines for recent brand deals with Nike and Lids, and she’s signed with Klutch Sports Group for NIL representation.

“NIL is a big blessing,” Watkins said. “It’s something I’ll never take for granted. I’m just happy I’m here in this moment in time; if I was a couple of years older, I wouldn’t be able to experience generating income off my name and how I perform on the court. I’m blessed to be in this position.”

Caroline Makauskas is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also covers a variety of sports on her TikTok @cmakauskas. Follow her on Twitter @cmakauskas.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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