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NCAA basketball: USC’s JuJu Watkins and three more freshman phenoms

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USC's JuJu Watkins is averaging 26.8 points through six games, which ranks second in Divison I behind Iowa's Caitlin Clark. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NCAA basketball season has started off with a bang, with a number of freshmen already making names for themselves.

MiLaysia Fulwiley caught the attention of NBA great Magic Johnson in her very first game for South Carolina. And if Fulwiley and her fellows continue on their trajectories, then freshman of the year could be this season’s most competitive award — and a few freshmen could even play their way into the national player of the year conversation.

Just Women’s Sports takes a look at four freshman phenoms who have starred for their teams in the first month of the season.

JuJu Watkins, USC

Watkins has been vocal about having both freshman of the year and national player of the year aspirations – and so far, she’s off to a great start. On Monday, she snagged her third-straight Pac-12 Freshman of the Week selection, and she has helped No. 6 USC to its best AP poll ranking in 29 years.

Her first collegiate game set the tone. Her 32 points stands as the most ever by a USC freshman in their debut, beating out Lisa Leslie’s 30 points. And those 32 points came against a ranked opponent in Notre Dame. Just five games later, she broke Leslie’s record for the most 30-point games scored by a USC freshman. And what’s more? Her 26.8 points per game rank second in Division I behind only Iowa senior Caitlin Clark.

When USC trailed by six points to Penn State on Nov. 22, Watkins scored seven in a row to lead the still-undefeated Trojans to victory.

“JuJu is so phenomenal, to see her adapt to the college game and adapt as quickly is so impressive,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of Watkins. And after her debut, Gottlieb said: “She’s ridiculous. Get used to it.”

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(Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports)

MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina

Fulwiley turned heads with her season-opening performance against Notre Dame in Paris. And since then, she’s been a walking highlight reel for South Carolina, helping the team reach the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

The freshman guard is averaging the second-most points (15.0) for the Gamecocks behind only senior center Kamilla Cardoso (16.8). She’s also averaging 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The Gamecocks (5-0) had a lot of question marks after the departure of big names such as Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, but in Fulwiley, they’ve found an answer.

And what is perhaps scariest for South Carolina’s opponents is that Fulwiley still has a lot to learn when it comes to choosing her spots for her dazzling plays.

“She’s looking for a really great moment for her, a crowd-pleasing play. She has an appetite for it, that she loses sight of the in-between the great plays. And that’s where the game is being played,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “We gotta continue to give her more experiences in game-like situations. … But she’s learning.

“Not taking anything away from her. I want her to be great, I want her to be generational, I want her to be able to play a lot of different ways.”

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(Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame

A three-time ACC Rookie of the Week, Hidalgo is off to a hot start for the Irish, averaging 25.0 points (good for third in Division I), 5.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a 56.6% shooting through her first six games. She leads the ACC in both points and steals (6.3) per game.

Hidalgo set a Notre Dame record with 31 points in her first game. And earlier this month, she was named ACC Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week – just the second Notre Dame player to ever sweep such awards.

On top of that, she has 38 steals through six games. Her season high sits at 12 – which tied the Notre Dame record for a single game. She had 18 steals in a two-game span, which is the second-most by an ACC player in the last 25 seasons. She leads all Division I players in steals per game.

She also hasn’t posted below 20 points yet this season, and her six straight games with at least 20 points matches Beth Morgan and Arike Ogunbowale as the only players in Irish history to do so.

“I knew recruiting her what she was capable of providing for us,” head coach Niele Ivey said of Hidalgo. “I needed leadership. I needed scoring. And somebody that could just handle the ball … just the experience that she brings.

“And then we obviously fell in love with her. She has an incredible personality. So when you have that match with somebody with high character, somebody that plays with the unselfishness that she plays with, it fits into our system perfectly.”

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(Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

Mikaylah Williams, LSU

Williams is another freshman who is making history. Against Kent State in mid-November, she scored 42 points, going 15-of-20 from the field while adding seven rebounds and three steals. Those 42 points set an LSU freshman record for points, and also stand as the most points in a single game for any LSU women’s basketball player in the last 25 seasons.

“She’s a special talent,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “It was one of those moments where the rim feels as big as the ocean. I want to be that coach that pushes her beyond the limits. I think you’re just seeing her scratch the surface.”

She’s averaging 17.5 points per game, and her scoring touch has helped LSU rise to the sky-high expectations they faced ahead of the season – even amid some off-court turmoil.

For Williams to stand out among a top-ranked recruiting class at LSU is no small feat – especially considering the star transfers that the Tigers also brought in during the offseason, with both Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow making their mark.