all scores

Juju Watkins’ commitment could transform USC basketball

JuJu Watkins, a 2023 USC signee, is one of three finalists for the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year award. (Jason Armond/Getty Images)

Juju Watkins is staying home.

One of the top recruits in the class of 2023 announced her decision to play college basketball at the University of Southern California on Tuesday. Watkins grew up just 10 minutes from the USC campus, and her family, she said, was the main reason for staying close to home.

Watkins took great care with her decision, which she announced in front of her friends and classmates at Sierra Canyon.

“I didn’t want to rush this process,” Watkins told ESPN. “A lot of people in my class had already committed before me, and I definitely was taking my time. But I want to make sure it was 1,000% where I wanted to go.”

She chose the Trojans over current women’s basketball powerhouses South Carolina and Stanford, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP Top 25. USC is unranked.

With the Cardinal or the Gamecocks, Watkins would be stepping into a team that is already built for NCAA titles. With USC, she will be a part of the building process. In fact, Watkins will be the central building block for a historic Trojans program that hasn’t been in conversation with elite teams for quite some time.

But Watkins changes that, almost instantly.

“Juju is the best and most decorated player of her class both in the country and internationally, ” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said in a press release. “I could talk for days about her skill set: her shot-making ability, creativity to the rim, dominance on the boards, defensive tenacity and her elite court vision.

“But what I am most excited about is that JuJu the human being is joining the USC family. This is a young woman with transcendent talent, but she is also uniquely motivated. She is about things bigger than herself: her family, her team, her community, her city. Juju had the courage to stay home and is driven to bring USC women’s basketball back to prominence. What a monumental day for all of us in the Trojan family.”

USC was a powerhouse in the 1980s, with All-Americans Cheryl Miller, Paula McGee and Rhonda Windham leading the Trojans to an NCAA championship in 1983. They repeated the feat in 1984.

But recent women’s basketball history has belonged to teams like UConn and Baylor, as well as the last two teams competing with USC for Watkins – South Carolina and Stanford. The Trojans haven’t made an NCAA tournament since 2014, and after being a mainstay throughout the ’80s and most of the ’90s, USC has made just three March Madness appearances since 2000.

Watkins is the kind of talent that can transform a program — or in USC’s case, restore it to its former glory.

The 6-foot-1 guard has been called a generational talent after leading Sierra Canyon to a state title in her junior season with 24.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per game, among other accomplishments, including playing for the United States U-17 and U-16 national teams.

Watkins is a versatile guard, which along with her obvious talent makes her the ideal player to build a team around. And Gottlieb is already working on finding pieces to surround Watkins. Four-star recruit Malia Samuels, a point guard from Seattle, joins Watkins in the class of 2023.

It’s also worth noting that nine players on the ESPN Top 100 recruiting list for 2024 are from California. And with Watkins staying home to play for the Trojans, she could encourage more players to join her in staying home.