Juju Watkins’ Rise to Becoming the High School Player of the Year
There’s a different energy in the gym when Judea “Juju” Watkins steps on the court. She has a presence on the floor that makes people turn their heads, and a game that embodies the word “showtime.”
The 6-2 guard at Sierra Canyon HS has been at the forefront of the high school game ever since she entered eighth grade, and for good reason: Her game has it all. She’s outrageously versatile, athletic, sees the floor and makes plays for herself and her teammates. Most of all, her passion seeps through the air in any gym she plays. You don’t only watch Juju hoop, you feel her need to win.
As the No. 1 ranked player in the class of 2023 for the past few years, Juju has taken home almost every individual accolade you can think of. But before the Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year, FIBA U17 MVP and SLAM Summer Classic MVP awards came (the list goes on and on), things were a bit different.
Juju was maybe 10 when she was on her way home from a game. With her parents driving, she sat in the backseat crying, upset with the way she’d performed in the few minutes she got.
“I wasn’t good at all,” Watkins tells SLAM with a laugh.
In that moment, she looked up at her mom and dad with tears in her eyes and asked them to help her get better.
“I went to my mom and my dad and told them I really wanted to take this seriously,” Juju says.
While she may not have been the best on day 1, it was clear that she was the most passionate on the floor. She fought for every rebound, diving on the floor and outrunning opponents. But her game needed finesse.
“So, I pulled her out of it [AAU],” Juju’s mom, Sari Watkins, says. “That summer—and year really—we just concentrated on developing her. My husband started teaching her how to shoot the ball.”
In her backyard in the Watts neighborhood of L.A., Juju began training for hours on end. By the next summer, she was no longer the last player on the bench but rather the top player on her entire AAU team.
“After that year, the difference between her and her peers was glaring,” Sari remembers.
As the 20- and 30-point performances became regular occurrences, Juju began gaining national recognition, but she was still hungry for more.
“I had to win,” the phenom shares. “I’m so happy that I have the parents that I have to stay behind me. If I didn’t have that support system and dedication from them, I would have stayed where I was at.”
That support included hour-long drives in L.A. traffic to and from Windward School, a top college-prep school, while still living in South L.A. While she was averaging 20+ ppg her freshman season, the transition to prep school was anything but easy.
“It was such a culture shock,” Watkins remembers, of her time as a 14-year-old freshman. “When people asked me where I was from, I was very hesitant to claim where I was from, because I felt people would judge. Those lessons have taught me to really just be myself through it all.”
Basketball was her saving grace though, and after an incredible two seasons at Windward, Juju made the decision to transfer to Sierra Canyon, a program synonymous with success. It was another challenge she was excited to face and one she handled with ease.
In her junior season with the Trailblazers, she averaged 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks and helped bring home a state championship.
“A state championship is a hooper’s dream,” Juju says. “It’s something that I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. That was my biggest goal outside of everything else. That was one of the best, if not the best moment in my basketball career.”
Now as she finishes her senior year, we get to see the fame she’s achieved, as stars like LeBron James, Chris Brown and 2 Chainz pull up to watch the “Juju show.” And the show won’t be going far; Watkins recently committed to the USC Trojans.
“I want to bring the winning culture back to USC, like back when it was Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson,” Juju says of her decision. “I know it’s gonna be a challenge. And, you know, I’m a sucker for a challenge.”
Portraits by Jineen Williams