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Swanson: Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins is a sensation for all the right reasons

CHATSWORTH — A handful of WNBA hoodies dotted the crowd at Juju Watkins’ game Saturday night, orange signposts reminding everyone of the direction she’s headed.

Derek Fisher, the former Sparks coach and one of a handful of former NBA players on the premises for Sierra Canyon’s 74-35 CIF-Southern Section Open Division girls basketball playoff victory over Bishop Montgomery, raved: “What I love most about her, she really, really wants to win – and not just be great individually.”

Lindsay Gottlieb, the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant and Watkins’ coach-to-be at USC, said in a phone call last week: “I’ve never seen a player in high school perform at a level she’s performing at.”

“She’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” co-signed Marlon Wells recently, the decorated Temecula Rancho Christian coach with a quarter century of first-hand Southern California girls basketball knowledge. “She’s a pro,” he added. “She’s a pro right now.”

Different people who have watched way more high school girls hoop than me suggested as much, that Watkins – who has already signed with Klutch and with Nike – is WNBA-ready.

I’ve never been an A&R rep, but I knew that OneRepublic, the Grammy-nominated pop rock band, was going to be big when I heard them play once upon a time at the now-defunct Key Club in Hollywood. And I’m no pro basketball scout, but I’ve watched a lot of WNBA games.

And, yep: Juju is coming.

But the phenom is a fledgling still, and I don’t think people appreciate what big, bad wolves stalk the WNBA. So I can wait to see her join that fray – she’ll probably find a way to float above it – in a few years.

While she’s at Sierra Canyon, playing the game as well as any high school girl before her; as well, perhaps, as California prep legends Diana Taurasi, Lisa Leslie or Cheryl Miller, or maybe better – you know what the greatest thing is about Watkins? She’s a kid playing a game.

That’s what I left thinking after catching up with the nation’s top-ranked recruit after Sierra Canyon, the top-ranked team in the nation, won its 27th game in 27 tries this season (so many the Trailblazers’ coach Alicia Komaki said she’d lost track) and asking Juju for her analysis.

Her response made me realize how conditioned I’ve become to pro basketball business speak: We took care of the ball, we defended well, our 3s were falling, etc.

Because she hit me with a refreshing: “It was fun!”

“We’ve been in this position before,” she said. “Playing that team at the beginning of the playoffs, so it was fun to see them again and just go out there and do what we do best.”

(Even that postgame chat with a reporter – another reporter, another interview – isn’t yet a media obligation: “I got you,” she kept saying. “I got you, I got you.”)

I thought I might leave Saturday’s game wanting to implore people, in capital letters: GO WATCH THIS GIRL! But she is so tantalizing cool, it seems more apt simply to say that it’ll be your loss if you don’t catch her, either in these playoffs as Sierra Canyon tries to capture its second consecutive state championship or next season, with Gottlieb’s upward-trending USC team.

Watkins’ favorite player is LeBron James (as much, she said, for what he’s accomplished off the court). But on the court, the 6-foot-2 guard has Paul George’s liquid fluidity and Kawhi Leonard’s general stoicism, wearing a focused expression not unlike one I imagine she’d sport in class (except for the exultant clap and kick she did after freshman guard Kayla Malek snuck inside for a put-back and a foul).

Forgive this former Clippers beat writer these analogies, but the member of that team she most reminded me of: Nicolas Batum, for the feather-light touch they share out there.

Watkins treated the game – she finished with 18 easy points in three quarters, 16 coming before halftime – like one of those plasma balls. You know, the novelty items of yesteryear, those clear glass orbs with colorful currents dancing inside?

Because whenever Watkins touched the ball – whether it found her way behind the 3-point line or cutting to the rim – she’d bend an electric charge through the entire proceeding.

Which is why, in the gym Saturday, I had a handful of people tell me the Sierra Canyon girls team is even more fun to watch than the Trailblazers’ Bronny James-headlined boys team.

“She’s better than a lot of boys,” said Bobby Garcia, a videographer who records high school action for his company Clutch Time Productions, including Watkins’ 60-point, 21-rebound, five-steal game on Senior Night earlier this month. “She wasn’t being selfish that night, she just couldn’t miss!”

JuJu Watkins dropped a 60 PIECE on Senior Night pic.twitter.com/vJm25bsRtj

— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 1, 2023

Komaki’s favorite thing about Watkins’ game: Her rebounding. And she certainly has a knack, loitering in the vicinity one second, catching the ricochet with a rubber-band reflex the next.

My favorite part was seeing her attack in transition, when she’d look like she was riding a jet ski, bumping along at 60 mph and zooming past everyone on the court as if they were buoys floating at sea and not fellow athletes racing to try to keep up.

 

Her favorite part? The competing. She said she’s not someone who’s going to make you keep playing a video game all night until she wins, but she’s gonna own the basketball court: “It’s always fun to play against people who want to play against you.”

She’s the type of player who could bring – who will, and surely already has brought – new fans to women’s basketball.

Someone who makes me think of something Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer wrote in her book, “Shooting from the Outside,” about the 1996 Olympic team: “What any woman in sports does has meaning beyond the personal. With every accomplishment, we affect some small change. We pull the wagon a little farther down the road, picking up the ropes laid there for us by Babe Didrikson, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and basketball’s own pioneer, Carole Eckman.”

Juju Watkins will be a game-changer, all right. The 2021-22 Gatorade California girls basketball Player of the Year after averaging 24.5 points and 10.3 rebounds as a junior, she’s got a referee’s daughter in the stands trying to take photos of her mom when she’s in the same frame as Watkins. She has kids lined up after games to take photos with the Sierra Canyon star – something that’s been happening for so long she can’t pinpoint when it started.

But also, mostly, she’s a kid out there having fun.

“Honestly,” Watkins said. “I try not to think about other people or what if this is their first time seeing me; I just love playing basketball.”

Everyone wants a piece of Juju Watkins. She’s a star. pic.twitter.com/xdLvDRhrso

— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) January 14, 2023

Sierra Canyon’s JuJu Watkins helps with rebounding during warmups before a game against Harvard-Westlake earlier this season. Many believe the USC-bound Watkins is WNBA-ready right now. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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