Up Next

Women's College Basketball

USC-bound Juju Watkins poised to headline first women’s team in Hoop Summit

The girls high school basketball national player of the year talks why she chose USC, dealing with celebrity, her Watts legacy and more

PORTLAND, Ore. – LSU’s victory over Iowa in the women’s NCAA national championship game garnered a record 9.9 million viewers on Sunday. One of those viewers was the top-ranked high school girls basketball player in the country, Judea “Juju” Watkins, who is taking her talents to Southern California as the popularity of women’s college basketball is high and rising. On Saturday, Watkins hopes to have viewers sitting in a sold-out Moda Center and watching keenly on television as she headlines the first USA Basketball women’s team competing in the Nike Hoop Summit.

The Nike Hoop Summit was created in 1995 as an all-star game in which the USA Basketball Men’s Junior Select Team faced off against a World Select Team of international teens. Finally in 2023, the women are now participating in this classic against a women’s World Select team.

“It always means something to wear USA on your chest,” Watkins told Andscape. “Whenever you’re wearing it, you’re representing ladies, all the Olympians and junior USA players. So, to be a part of that bigger legacy is very empowering. It’s going to be a great game on Saturday from two aspects, not only USA. It’s better with the players from other countries that want to bring it. And USA always brings it, so it’ll be a really good game. I recommend everybody to cheer.”

Watkins gave basketball fans plenty to cheer about during her stellar prep career.

Watkins was recently named the 2023 Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Girls’ Player of the Year. The 17-year-old is widely viewed as the top-ranked girls basketball player in the Class of 2023. The Sierra Canyon High (California) star averaged 27.3 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game this season. The native of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles chose to play college basketball 10 miles away from home.

“Juju is a transcendent talent,” USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb told Andscape. “With her size and skill level, she does things on the court that are exceptional. But she makes them look seamless. She plays the game with a joy and passion that is magnetic. She is unique off the court in that she has an awareness of her impact and gravity on her community and those around her, yet still meshes her quiet confidence with humility. She is special.”

Watkins sat down for an interview with Andscape after USA Basketball Women’s Junior Select Team’s practice at the Portland Trail Blazers’ practice facility on Wednesday. The following is a Q&A with the 6-foot-2 guard in which she talks about her decision to go to USC and the program’s all-time greats, her love for fashion, the state of women’s college basketball, her family legacy in Watts, dealing with her celebrity and much more.

So why did you choose USC?

I’m big on repping from where I come from. So, to be able to wear USC across my chest and represent my community and where I come from, it’s important.

How familiar are you with the history of Trojans women’s basketball and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame likes of Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson?

Very familiar. Those are players that I look up to, so to be able to, being part of that legacy was important, it’s inspiring for me. I’ve gotten to know Lisa Leslie a little more. We did a little video shoot together, and she’s very cool, very humble, down to earth, so I’m glad I got to meet her.

Have you seen the 2020 HBO documentary on the history of USC women’s basketball called Women of Troy?

Yes, I did. I did. Very empowered. I think during COVID, that came out. So, I got to watch it with my mom. And well my mom, she played basketball around that time, so she looked up the players like Tina Thompson, so just to watch that and see the type of legacy and how big the crowds were is very inspiring.

Does the year 2028 mean anything to you?

That’s the Olympics in LA. That’s one of my big goals, to be able to play in that. So just working to get to that point.

How exciting would that be, to be able to play at home representing USA during the 2028 Olympics?

That would be everything just coming full circle. I played on the [USA under] 16s, 17s, and I’m happy I’m getting to play now for the first-ever women’s Hoop Summit. That’s definitely on the bucket list, for sure.

In terms of being a part of this first game, I don’t know if you even followed the Hoop Summit before, but when they announced it, what’d you think about that?

I actually wasn’t really familiar with the Hoop Summit prior to when they started having conversations about the first woman’s game. So, I’m just glad that my peers and I are able to represent women in doing this, and just to pave the way for younger players who deserve to be here under this type of platform.

You’re also joining the women’s college basketball at a great time. What was this last weekend for you? Did you go to the women’s Final Four?

It was so exciting. I actually didn’t go, but I watched it all the way through, and just to see the type of recognition that it’s getting, it’s very inspiring because it’s been a long time since it got this type of recognition. So just to be able to see these great players, who deserve all the recognition they’re getting, actually get it, I’m just proud of what they’ve accomplished, and hopefully, I’m able [to accomplish it]. They’re opening doors right now, so hopefully my class is able to just reap those benefits.

The girls’ [championship] game was way more exciting than the guys. I watched the guys, I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know. I might have to turn this off.’

Guard Judea “Juju” Watkins shoots during a USA Select practice for the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon.

USA Basketball

What did you think about that all the trash-talking at the women’s Final Four?

Guys do it all the time, and nothing is said. It’s a very competitive sport, and you got great competitors out on the floor, and of course, stuff like that’s going to happen, so I’m glad those ladies were able to go at it and just play one of the best games I’ve seen in a while.

You hail from Watts in Los Angeles, a place where your family has made a name for itself. Your late great-grandfather Ted Watkins founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee after the 1965 Watts Riots and has a park named after him there. Tell me about your family legacy in Watts and your pride being from there.

Well, my great-grandfather started a nonprofit within the Watts community to offer housing and jobs. But my grandfather, who is alive today, he’s still carrying on that legacy with the nonprofit. So, I was raised in Watts. I was born in Watts. So, I grew up in that environment and got to see the beautiful side of it.

A lot of times, it gets misconstrued as a very dangerous neighborhood, which it can be at times. But it’s good people, it’s a good environment, and I’m glad I’m from there. A lot of pride. I always rep where I come from because it’s important, and it’s shaped me to the person I’m today.

Your great-grandfather was committed to social justice there and helping people. Is that something that you would like to do?

Yeah, of course. Always speaking up where there are injustices, and fighting towards a bigger goal, not only as women, but as a Black woman, I feel like that’s a very important part. And just to be able to represent Black women and be kind of somebody for young Black women to look up to.

Do you have a lot of pressure to continue live up to all the recognition?

No, I feel like my main goal is just to have fun. I love what I do, and to be able to do it, and others watch and see what I can do, is a blessing. So, I don’t really look into this pressure.

And what do you think about your platform and what comes with that?

To have a platform is very powerful, and I’m glad that I do. I just have to continue to represent myself the way I want to be represented, and show who I am, authentically. Just to continue to be myself is very important.

Who are you for people that don’t know you? You said you want to continue to show yourself. What’s ‘yourself’?

Just show things that are important to me, my community, where I come from. Being a good person is very important, and that’s how I was raised. So just to keep those values all the time.

Guard Judea “Juju” Watkins for USA Basketball.

USA Basketball

Do you enjoy your celebrity?

It’s cool. I’m blessed to have this platform, so it’s cool. Everything that comes with it is cool. I don’t want to think of it as I’m no Beyoncé. I’m not getting tackled when I leave the house.

It catches me off guard sometimes. Like, I’ll be at the mall, and then somebody will be like, ‘Oh, I’ll take a picture,’ and I’ll just be just coming out the house, hair undone. So, it catches me off guard for sure, sometimes.

How much of a fashion aficionado are you?

I am into fashion. It’s something that I enjoy doing. Yeah, I do. Hopefully one day I’ll have my own [clothing] line. I’m really into street wear. Like a good-quality hoodie and sweats.

High school is winding up. Did you go to prom and are you gearing up for the end of high school mentally?

Prom is actually coming up. I’m getting ready for that. It’s kind of stressful, but, yeah, getting ready, just having as much fun as I can before I head out the door to college.

What are you most excited about off the court at USC?

I’ll definitely say the environment. Just meeting new people, making new friends. That’s really important for me.

How good can USC women’s basketball be next season?

It takes a good five [players]. We’re in the process of just finding right pieces and kind of a little rebuilding. There are some small pieces there right now, and I believe in Coach Lindsay. We’re going to make it happen just to get the program back to what it was used to.

You and Bronny James played basketball for Sierra Canyon. I don’t know what kind of relationship you guys have here as schoolmates. What’s it like to be at school with him, and what kind of player and person is he?

Well, he’s a great person. He’s very down to earth. As a player, he’s really efficient. He knows his role and he’s really good at it, so that’s something that I admire [about] what Bronny is bringing. He’s a great person. He’s cool.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.