LOS ANGELES - It was the first Friday night of 2024, and I had only one priority: seeing JuJu Watkins live.
The USC Trojans were facing off against the Oregon State Beavers in the Trojans' first home game of the Pac-12 schedule. The conference is grueling this season; USC already had a conference loss at the hands of their local rival, UCLA. So while there are no must-win games at the beginning of January, a defeat wouldn’t have been ideal.
I hopped in my car, braved I-5 and headed towards the Galen Center.
If you've never had the privilege of attending a game at USC, put it on your bucket list. At night, it perfectly balances the big-city environment with the intimacy of an active college town. Mix in perfect weather and the street lights igniting the city and you are primed to watch basketball.
The Trojans were ranked at No. 9 entering the game while the Beavers were unranked, albeit undefeated with a 12-0 record. Watkins established herself immediately, taking charge by scoring USC’s first nine points. She did it every which way in the opening quarter. First, a long-range jumper from the left side of the court, then a 3-pointer, followed by a pair of jumpers.
Juju Watkins Q1 highlights against Oregon State pic.twitter.com/AgGd97OQX3— KJ (@PointForwardPro) January 6, 2024
When it comes to USC, it's not about a system: Watkins is the system. She mainly starts possessions from the wing or corner, and you'll be hard-pressed to find any possessions where she doesn't touch the ball. And that's a good idea! Watkins, an 18-year-old freshman, is single-handedly turning this program around.
Her year-one resume is longer than most player's collegiate career achievements. She's been named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week 10 of a possible 11 times, has been named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Top 10 list and has led the team in points in every game. For a program that includes legends like Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, Watkins is well on her way to reaching that rarified air.
Oregon State led 28-25 at the half, but never seemed to control the game. With Watkins scoring 15 of her team's 25 points, it was clear she was the best player on the Trojans and the best player on the floor. You could even make a case for her as the best player in the country right now. She's averaging 26.1 points, the second-highest in the nation, along with 7.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
In this matchup, she felt inevitable. Angelenos have seen it with players like Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Miller. They were brilliant enough to overwhelm their opponent and secure the win when games were tight. Watkins did just that, scoring seven-straight points to end the third quarter to give her team the two-point edge heading towards the fourth.
“We were down pretty much the whole game,” Watkins said. “So it was important that we had some momentum going into the fourth and making sure that it was zero to zero. Just trying to even out the field and making sure that when we came in for the fourth, we had some confidence going into it.”
Watkins ended the night with 28 points, six rebounds and a career-high five blocks to help the Trojans squeak out the two-point win, 56-54. In the closing minutes, it was a true team effort, with Kayla Padilla hitting a 3-pointer with 2:17 left, which ended up being the game-winning basket. Watkins was the star, but no one shines alone; Padilla was crucial to the win, scoring 14 points on 4-for-5 shooting from three.
In her postgame presser, Watkins had the composure normally reserved for upperclassmen. She saw her boxscore and muttered "horrible” to herself, frustrated with her 11-for-33 shooting from the field. “The horrible is on my part,” Watkins said. “Just trying to get my field goal percentage up a little more, but my coach said tonight wasn’t great for us, not our best basketball, but for us to come out here and pull out with the dub and KP five for six. I mean, that’s crazy.”
Being from Los Angeles, Watkins understands how special it is to play college ball in the city she's from. After the press conference, she took pictures with everyone waiting inside the building and continued to sign autographs for the dozens of people waiting outside the Galen Center. I've never seen that kind of attention and admiration for a hooper that young. Everyone gravitates towards her like a magnet and her smile is infectious.
Watkins is already required viewing for anyone who likes, loves, or is even curious about the game of basketball. This is just the beginning of what be a career that seems destined to end in the Basketball Hall of Fame. I implore all of you to do anything you can to appreciate her performances in Southern California this season. She's a generational talent. A queen amongst queens. A one of one, none like her before and none to come.