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Juju Watkins’ star grows brighter with Sierra Canyon basketball

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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.