‘Don’t move … improve’: Can L.A.’s newest star revive a storied women’s basketball program?

LOS ANGELES — JuJu Watkins’ hands didn’t feel quite right. They were tingling in a way that seemed unnatural, and when she looked down at them, though they were physically there (all 10 fingers — check; perfectly manicured nails — check) they didn’t feel like her hands. Not the hands that made her the No. 1 recruit in the country. Not the hands that made the marvelous seem mundane as a high school basketball player. Not the hands that signed the first Nike name, image and likeness licensing deal for any high school girls basketball player ever.

She scanned the hallway for a basketball — thinking that might be the one thing that could bring her hands back into her body — but none were in sight. Near her was the tunnel, where at the end awaited the start of Watkins’ college career. She knew the questions that had swirled around her for months would finally be answered once she stepped on it: What could she make of herself and a long-dormant USC program?

“You nervous, Ju?” teammate Rayah Marshall teased her repeatedly the past few days. “Yes,” Watkins admitted. “A little.” And now, it seemed, her hands were in on it, too.

From the court, Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff experienced his own sense of the unknown. His Buckeyes — with their intense pressing defense — were ranked No. 7, a popular Final Four pick with a bevy of returners and future WNBA players.

And yet, McGuff had spent the bulk of his USC scouting watching high school and grassroots game tape of Watkins, something he couldn’t recall doing before. Because it was clear from the moment Watkins signed her letter of intent at Sierra Canyon that she would be the sun around which USC’s every other piece orbited.

Watkins’ first bucket came a minute into the game; her first assist, 30 seconds later.

Whatever jitters existed, whatever happened to her hands in that hallway, dissipated somewhere between the tunnel and tipoff. She dropped 32 points on Ohio State in a nine-point USC win. WNBA legend Candace Parker, who provided commentary for TruTV, said: “USC is in for a treat with JuJu Watkins’ career.”

But the moment that stuck out to McGuff wasn’t Watkins’ scoring. Or her highlight reel plays. Or even when Watkins performed the popular “too small” celebration after finishing through three of his players.

It was when she went to the bench in the third quarter after picking up her third and fourth fouls. He watched as she jogged to the sideline, noting that she didn’t hang her head or throw her hands up about the calls. At the start of the fourth, with the Trojans up two, Watkins returned to the floor.

Maybe this moment would rattle the freshman, McGuff thought. Maybe this moment was too big. Maybe the trepidation Watkins had seemingly lacked would now appear with only one foul separating her and the bench for the rest of the game.


The Trojans scored 27 fourth-quarter points. Watkins had seven of those, and two assists, while playing the full 10 minutes without a foul.

“In your first game, against a ranked opponent, in a big event — that was the most impressive thing,” McGuff said. “And it leads me to believe she’s going to be an absolute superstar as much because of her talent, but even more so because of her mindset.”

As the No. 1 player in the 2023 class, choosing a program that has languished in mediocrity her entire life didn’t faze her. She doesn’t appear nervous when celebrities sit courtside to watch her play. She’s open about the fact that she doesn’t just want to — but plans to — win a national title before she leaves USC.

But don’t confuse her quiet nature for a lack of confidence. Because if there’s one thing Watkins will bet on, it’s herself and her ability to rise to the occasion. It’s her hands, her mind and her motivation that make her the best freshman college basketball has seen in a long time. Maybe since USC’s own Cheryl Miller.

“In my 20 years of coaching, I’ve never been talking about a player in these kinds of grandiose terms 14 games in. But she’s different,” third-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “It’s not subtle how good JuJu is.”

Gottlieb sat on one of the couches in her office across from Watkins, studying her, trying to glean any clues from Watkins’ body language.

Watkins had kept a tight circle through her recruitment. What could’ve been the most high-profile saga in women’s basketball was actually an air-tight chamber with no leaks. There weren’t social media posts announcing every offer and campus visit. Coaches were mostly in the dark about where she was leaning.

The L.A. native, then a junior, attended the USC-UCLA game in the Galen Center and now sat with Gottlieb in her office. It was Gottlieb’s first season at USC, a program that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in nearly a decade. She was a splashy hire after delivering Cal its first Final Four appearance a decade earlier and spending the previous two seasons on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ staff.

Gottlieb had always been cautious about which games exactly she’d invite Watkins. She knew the energy and environment in Galen Center had a good chance to damper the experience. It was late January, and Watkins had just watched the Trojans lose to UCLA by 10, dropping to 9-7. Watkins had lost 10 games total during her high school career at that point. She sat in a chair with a view of the hallway as USC players strolled through the office grabbing meals and shouting as they passed the open door, “See you tomorrow, Coach.”

Gottlieb remembers Watkins posing one question: Why are they smiling?

Gottlieb knew Watkins’ recruitment would likely hinge on this moment.

Gottlieb explained that three days earlier, USC lost to UCLA by 23. In the short turnaround, they watched film and implemented changes. In the game that night, they course-corrected. No, they didn’t win, but they moved forward. And progress was the goal right now, and the Trojans felt good about that.

“I had to explain that college basketball is a journey,” Gottlieb said. “And it wasn’t where we wanted to be, but there were baby steps to it.”

A year later, when Watkins announced her top three schools — USC, Stanford and South Carolina — it looked like a real one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others scenario. Stanford and South Carolina had each won national titles in the previous three seasons. USC hadn’t even made the NCAA Tournament.

But that conversation in Gottlieb’s office stuck with Watkins. She always had a desire to build something, to help transform a place. Her great-grandfather, Ted Watkins Sr., founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) in 1965 as an initiative to improve the lives of those who called the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood home. When much of the country thinks of Watts, they think of the Watts riots of 1965. When Watkins thinks of Watts, she sees her neighborhood that surrounds the park named after her great-grandfather. She envisions the medical center and apartment complexes he brought to the area. As a child, she spent her summers working as a receptionist for the organization. During her “lunch breaks,” she talked about life and basketball in the office of her grandpa, Tim Watkins, who ran the WLCAC after Ted died in 1993. He took her on runs to the store to buy candy, and he let her shadow the teenagers who worked on the summer initiatives. Watkins, five years younger than her closest sibling, was the little sister who hung around and tried to jump in on everything with the big kids. When they wouldn’t let her, she’d observe and listen.

She noticed how much he invested into his relationships with others and saw that everyone who encountered her grandpa referred to him as a friend. At the WLCAC and at home, Watkins was constantly surrounded by the knowledge and influence passed down by her great-grandfather. “Don’t move … improve” was one of his quotes she heard countless times.

When it came time to decide where to attend college, those words stuck with her. She wanted to help build something. Sure, she could help Stanford and South Carolina stay on top. Or she could help change the direction of USC. Better yet, she could do it in an arena that she had driven past hundreds of times.

“In the end, this is my city, and USC hasn’t been hot since the ‘80s,” Watkins said. “But USC had a deeper meaning than just, ‘Oh, it’s home.’ Of course, that played into it. But coming to this school and really having a big impact on the trajectory of the program here — that was very important to me.”

When Cheryl Miller graduated from USC in 1986 — after winning two national titles and making a third trip to the title game — it seemed as though the Trojans’ dynasty was ready to anchor the West Coast of women’s college hoops. They had not only established themselves with elite ball players, but well before the NIL era, the players were well-known across the country.

After USC won its second national title in 1984, Sports Illustrated wrote: “The Trojan women … have never had a hard time getting a table anyplace in town. That’s thanks to the sports information department at USC, a.k.a. the University of Social Calendars, which believes more in personal appearances than press releases and works with the school’s women athletes on grooming and etiquette and critiques all interviews. No wonder Miller and the McGees are easily the most recognizable women athletes in L.A., and the Women of Troy the most visible team in women’s basketball.”

But for the next decade, the program went on a gradual decline. Across the country, other powers rose. Tennessee and Pat Summitt won three titles between 1987 and 1991; Stanford hired Tara VanDerveer in 1985 and the Cardinal won its first national title in 1990; UConn announced its ascendancy in 1995 when it won its first title over Tennessee, no less.

As for USC, it struggled to establish the coaching excellence and stability those programs enjoyed.

After winning two national titles with Miller, Linda Sharp retired in 1989 and the program hired Marianne Stanley, who won a national title with Old Dominion. Four years and an equal pay fight (and lawsuit) later, Stanley and USC parted ways. Miller returned as a head coach in 1993 and coached the Trojans, led by Lisa Leslie, to the 1994 Elite Eight — the furthest the program had gotten in March since her playing days — but she resigned abruptly after two seasons. USC then brought in Fred Williams, who made it two seasons before he was gone.

In the late ‘90s, USC finally established some head coaching consistency, but by then, expectations had fallen too far and others had filled the void. Only four times between 1997 and 2021, when Gottlieb arrived, did the Trojans finish among the top three teams in the conference.

In the 2000s, when national recruiting picked up in women’s basketball, USC remained very much a has-been. The Trojans’ 1983 and 1984 titles were long forgotten or completely unknown by players who were still in diapers (or not yet born) when USC hoisted those trophies.

From 2007 until 2022, California produced 16 top-10 recruits (10 percent of the nation’s total), but only one of those players went to USC while three apiece went to UConn and Duke.

Worse yet, USC was never even in the picture for the nation’s No. 1 recruits who hailed from California. In 2000, Diana Taurasi chose UConn over UCLA and Arizona. “I never thought I’d leave (California),” Taurasi told ESPN at the time. Three others — Haley Jones (Stanford), Katie Lou Samuelson (UConn) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (UConn) — didn’t even have USC as finalists.

In the 15 years leading up to Watkins’ senior season, 14 of the No. 1 players nationally chose just four schools — UConn, Stanford, Baylor and Tennessee.

“There has been a small group of elite women’s basketball programs that the best players go to. And you’re obviously trying to become one of those, but it’s also hard to become one of those without the best players,” Gottlieb said. “It really takes an outlier of a person to go to one of those schools before they become that.”

But in 2014, A’ja Wilson — the nation’s No. 1 player from Hopkins, S.C., just 20 minutes from South Carolina’s campus — was that outlier. She chose South Carolina, a program in its sixth season under Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks made their third NCAA Tournament appearance during Wilson’s senior year of high school, but the program had never been deeper than the Sweet 16. But by her junior season in Columbia, she had delivered the Gamecocks their first national championship.

And in 2023, Watkins chose USC, a program that has won one NCAA Tournament game in her lifetime.

Like Wilson at South Carolina, there was a draw to staying home, to building something not only in their backyards but also for their backyards.

When Watkins looks into the Galen Center stands, she sees familiar faces — both the celebrities she recognizes from TV but also her grandfather, Tim, who has attended every home game. She sees her cousins and friends from Watts, her parents, former teammates and teachers.

Attendance for Trojans home games is up three-fold this year, and while those numbers aren’t driven entirely by Watkins’ friends and acquaintances, they are driven largely by what Watkins has already done for the program and the city. How she has excited a fan base that may or may not recall the could’ve-been-dynasty that was almost born in L.A. four decades ago. A team that — like this current group — entertained, had star power and featured players the city felt it could claim as its own.

“I just have such a relationship with where I’m from — it’s very important to me,” Watkins said. “It’s just ingrained. I feel like if I have to, I’m gonna leave, but I will always find my way back here.”

At the Trojans’ first home game this season, USC honored the 1983 and 1984 title teams. Candace Parker, Vanessa Bryant and 2 Chainz were in attendance. Girls and boys, grandpas, teenagers all lined the court to get Watkins’ autograph. A few weeks later, LeBron James sat courtside. Not long after, it was comedian Kevin Hart. For the UCLA rematch, rapper Saweetie sat courtside.

To Watkins, they’re all L.A. And, to them, she likely represents the city, too. At least, that’s Watkins’ hope. That as she builds this program for the city and its fans that she also represents and reflects the place that built her.

“She is your favorite NBA player’s favorite college player,” Gottlieb said. “She is the dude down the street who shows up in a game in a Watkins jersey — she’s his favorite player. She has kids screaming her name and waiting outside. It’s still at the beginning, but it’s very palpable already.”

Attendance for Trojans home games is up three-fold this year. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On Sunday in Los Angeles, seven miles from where Watkins first learned to shoot a basketball, 10,657 people streamed into the Galen Center to see No. 9 USC play No. 2 UCLA. Two weeks earlier, the Bruins beat the Trojans by seven in Westwood. Watkins finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds in the first loss of her college career. In the postgame news conference, she drummed her fingers on the table and held back tears.

With Oregon and Oregon State coming to town soon after, Gottlieb decided to wait until closer to the rematch to show the team video from the loss. But two days later, she met with Watkins and McKenzie Forbes, a fifth-year grad transfer, to watch together. They dissected plays, examined moments that were fixable and discussed steps that needed to be taken. This is not the same team as two years ago when Watkins sat in Gottlieb’s office as a recruit, but the game plan hasn’t changed all that much.

After sweeping the Oregon schools, Watkins walked into the facilities with a different energy. She asked Gottlieb when they’d be watching the UCLA game film as a team. She wanted the corrections. She wanted the rematch.

Gottlieb stressed not to put too much on any single game. It’s a long season, longer so for a freshman who hasn’t yet learned the ebbs and flows, hasn’t felt the grind of March.

“Don’t worry,” Watkins reassured her with a smile.

In the rematch, USC’s Marshall — a 6-4 all-conference forward and future WNBA player — was sidelined with an illness. Even more was foisted onto Watkins’ shoulders.

In the USC locker room, Gottlieb felt an energized but focused intensity. At the center of it was Watkins. Her teammates not only listening to her, but following her. “When she’s telling us, ‘Come on, let’s go, make your free throws, we’re getting this win,’” Forbes said, “how do you not follow that lead?”

This might be the most impressive piece of Watkins’ success so far. A then-top-10 team featuring Marshall and Taylor Bigby (two third-year players who were top-30 recruits) and three Ivy League grad transfers not only look to an 18-year-old in these moments but want her to lead them.

“She’s such a competitor. She has this hunger to win,” Marshall says. “And it’s like, you thought you were a competitor, you thought you were hungry, but then you get out there with her.”

Against UCLA, Watkins finished with 32 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. After the Trojans’ 73-65 victory, Watkins collapsed onto the floor, her calves instantly cramping, as if they knew exactly how far they needed to take her. Her teammates huddled around her, celebrating.

Watkins celebrated, too, but recognized it all as progress. And despite consecutive losses last week against ranked opponents at Utah and Colorado, progress remains the goal.

Because in Los Angeles, a city is watching a young star primed to lead a program out of dormancy. And there’s a team that knows exactly where it wants the ball — in JuJu Watkins’ hands.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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