The phenomenal performance of USC freshman JuJu Watkins: Surpassing the all-time greatest records after just 6 games, ready to challenge Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese to become the next big starin women’s basketball.

LOS ANGELES — Caitlin Clark — the current Associated Press national player of the year — is in what may be her final season at Iowa. She could stay one more year as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as could Angel Reese of national champion LSU.

Regardless of their futures, JuJu Watkins is poised to step in as the next big star of the women’s game. USC’s JuJu Watkins Has Already Surpassed an All-Time Great Just Six Games Into Her Career. The USC women’s basketball team is having one of its best seasons ever, and it’s primarily thanks to a star freshman.

The Southern California freshman guard is the nation’s second-leading scorer at 26.8 points per game, right behind Clark, who leads with 30.5.

Watkins earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors in each of her first five weeks. She broke Lisa Leslie’s school record for most 30-point games by a freshman, with five in her first seven games.

She’s led the Trojans to a No. 6 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll and a 10-0 record.

Watkins sat out a win at Long Beach State on Dec. 21, with USC only saying she was day-to-day and not explaining further.

She wasn’t feeling well in a win over Cal State Fullerton three days earlier, leaving the court twice during the game but still finishing with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists.

The Trojans next play at No. 2 UCLA in the teams’ Pac-12 opener. The Bruins also are undefeated at 11-0 and the game is expected to be a rare sellout for women’s basketball in Los Angeles.

Among the celebrities who’ve come out to watch Watkins are LeBron James, Kevin Hart, Candace Parker, 2 Chainz, Vanessa Bryant and actor Storm Reid, a fellow USC student.

Watkin’s presence helped attract 4,712 to the Trojans’ home opener, their biggest crowd since 2010.

“This is why I’m here,” said Watkins, who has more than 340,000 Instagram followers. “Just to feel this energy in LA.”

As the Watkins phenomenon grows, USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb has considered reaching out to Iowa coach Lisa Bluder to see how they manage Clark’s stardom.

“I think we’re headed for some unprecedented things,” Gottlieb said. “She handles all of this with such grace. We try to do a good job of allowing her to be her, which is different and special, but also shielding her from some extra stuff. We’re constantly kind of updating that plan as we go.”

Watkins has a catchy nickname (her real name is Judea Skies Watkins) to go with her game. The resident DJ at Galen Center responds to every Watkins basket with “Yeah, JuJu.”

Despite the hype that has enveloped her for years, Watkins sounds entirely convincing when she says, “I didn’t really have that many expectations for myself, just to come in and contribute as much as I can to the team.”

Watkins grew up in the Watts section of South Los Angeles and in choosing USC she’s about 10 miles from home. Her community comes out for her, wearing her No. 12 jersey and cheering her every move.

“She understands her importance in the community,” Gottlieb said. “As good of a player as she is, she’s really even a better human. I know it sounds cliché but it’s the truth. Her village and her circle is really adept at putting her in the best possible situation to be happy and to succeed.”

Once the final buzzer sounds, the team lines up on court while the band strikes up “Fight On” and USC players hold up two fingers on their right hands in a V for victory sign.

They make their way along the courtside seats to greet family and fans.

After her teammates head off to the locker room, Watkins moves to the first row of stands, stopping frequently to chat, hold a baby for a photo or help an older woman work her camera phone. She dashes up the aisle or clambers over seats to meet people where they’re at.

Men, women and kids — of all ages and races — want a moment with Watkins.

“I’m starting basketball and I’m going to try to play like her,” said Jenesis Clark, a 9-year-old from nearby Chatsworth, where Watkins starred at Sierra Canyon High.

A smiling Watkins high-fives squealing girls, signs jerseys and circles back to pockets of fans she may have missed as she wends her way around half the court by herself. There’s no minder urging her to curtail the infectious spontaneity. She’s always the last player to head into the tunnel.

“It’s very heartwarming just to feel the energy here, feel all the love,” she said. “It’s amazing, especially that it’s in my hometown. I’m able to see people that I don’t really get to see as often, see family and little kids, it’s really cool.”

When the Trojans had an autograph signing after a recent game, Watkins crowded next to her teammates at a long table and signed posters and souvenir drink cups.

“She always doesn’t say thank you and that’s it. She always has a couple of words to add,” said Deborah Houston, a 61-year-old season ticketholder for 16 years. “She does it with kindness and sincerity.”

Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller won back-to-back national championships at USC in 1983 and ’84. She likes what she sees in Watkins on and off the court.

“Extremely poised, very smooth, very little wasted motion. The sky’s the limit,” Miller said. “I really, really like her temperament and how she’s handled everything. The game isn’t too big for her. She’s very comfortable in her skin.”

Watkins made a splash in the prep ranks, becoming the Gatorade national player of the year as a senior at Sierra Canyon, where she led the Trailblazers to a 31-1 record and the CIF-Southern Section Open Division title while being an honor student. She was MVP at the 2022 FIBA Under-17 World Cup and the 2021 FIBA Americas Under-16 championship, winning gold medals both times.

Watkins committed to USC in November 2022 when the Trojans were coming off a 12-16 record in Gottlieb’s first season. As the No. 1 recruit in the national class of 2023, she could have gone to an established powerhouse.

“Definitely one of the best choices of my life and I’ve only been here a couple months,” Watkins said.

Gottlieb is in her third year of rebuilding the program at a school best known for its football national championships.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been that seamless,” Watkins said of transitioning to college. “I think it’s due to all the hard work in the gym this past summer. I had to make a lot of adjustments approaching this season and I still am adjusting. It’s a testament to how hard my teammates push me and how hard coach pushes me.”

Gottlieb recalled a summer workout that measured the Trojans’ conditioning levels.

“She dove across the line to get her time,” the coach said. “There’s a high care factor. She reps extremely hard. When you see it every day, that’s the standard.”

Watkins is, of course, known for her scoring. But she’s also an excellent rebounder and passer who can initiate with the ball or play off the ball and flow into the offense.

“She’s very poised, you can’t get her too high or too low,” teammate Taylor Bigby said. “She can have 20 points and the way she’s playing you’d think she has two.”

After being introduced at her first home game, Watkins made the rookie mistake of retreating to the sideline. Her teammates urged her back on the court.

“I think they all want to be good for her just like she wants to be good for them and that doesn’t always happen with a player that’s a star player,” Gottlieb said. “That’s maybe her best gift, that people like playing with her. She’s a teammate that brings a lot of excitement and joy to the team.”

USC brought in a media consultant before the season for individual sessions with the players, knowing they would constantly be asked about Watkins. The consultant relayed her findings to Gottlieb.

“She told me privately she was so impressed that they all very authentically gushed about JuJu as a person, as a teammate, as a player,” the coach said.

Watkins’ teammates include three Ivy League graduates who lend maturity, along with junior Rayah Marshall, the Trojans’ second-leading scorer and top rebounder. None seem in awe of Watkins.

“Even though she’s a freshman, when you see her going hard, when you see her setting that standard, it’s contagious,” Harvard transfer McKenzie Forbes said. “I feel like that’s just a testament to her character. She’s a great person, a great teammate. Everyone loves her.”

Before tipoff, the 6-foot-2 Watkins is easy to pick out, styling her hair in a high bun. The fashion aficionado wants to have her own clothing line someday.

But for now, there’s college to conquer and eventually the Olympics and pro ranks.

“Just always thinking of what got me here — my family, god,” she said. “Whenever I step out on the court I try to give my all.”

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