Juju Watkins Represents her Country and Community with Pride
The high school standout is in camp hoping to make the USA U16 National Team.
Because of the calendar, it was an unusual conflict. It is, after all, the second week of June and the high school basketball season usually ends in March.
But it is no secret things have been pretty much upside-down the past 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, teams in Southern California are playing a regional championship this week.
For Judea “Juju” Watkins — the Class of 2023’s No. 1 player in the nation — the decision was tough, but she knew what she wanted to do: Play for her country.
So Watkins is one of 34 players at the USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team trials in Indianapolis this week vying for one of 12 USA roster spots to compete in the 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Santiago, Chile, from Aug. 16-22.
“It’s kind of hard picking between the two but right now, I really want to be at USA (Basketball) and kind of get to experience it again,” said Watkins, who attends the Windward School in Los Angeles. “I’ve been training towards it a lot, and that’s been like my main focus since I left (another USA Basketball camp) two years ago. So right now, it’s USA and of course I’m cheering my (high school) team on while I’m gone.”
The decision makes sense given that the 6-foot Watkins wants to be a game-changer. She already gained national acclaim when Sports Illustrated named her the 2020 SportsKid of the Year last fall. That basically came after a freshman season at Windward when she averaged 21 points and nine rebounds per game. She stepped up her game this spring by averaging 27 points, 12 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
She also has a backstory that motivates her and can be inspiring to others. Watkins lives in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, an area unfortunately best known nationally as the site of the Watts riots of 1965. Ted Watkins, her late great-grandfather, founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee following the riots, and today he has a park named after him, including a gym where Juju often practices.
“It means a lot,” said Watkins, who talks about her great-grandfather with Tim Watkins, her grandfather who lives next door, “just being able to know that there’s a legacy within my family and to be able to represent my last name and where I come from, Watts, is a real honor to me. At the end of the day, that’s one of my biggest goals — to be able to inspire others from our community and just represent my last name and my great-grandfather, who did a lot for our community.”
Living in Watts yet attending the private Windward School in the Mar Vista neighborhood, near Santa Monica, and also is a point of pride for Watkins.
“It’s a setting change at Windward,” Watkins said. “For me, it was a big difference at first, just being there and then going back home every day. But just showing people it doesn’t really matter where you’re from or your community, you can still do great things and be anywhere you want in the world. Just don’t hold back because of the stereotypes and limitations put on your community.”
Watkins knows she can build her own platform through her performance on the court. She has worked extensively with Phil Handy, a current Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach who has been on the bench in the last six NBA Finals and specializes in player development.
“I can’t even begin to try to explain it, but he’s helped a lot,” Watkins said. “He’s at the top of the top level, so he’s been teaching me how to raise my IQ, what to look for on certain dribbles and certain moves and just explaining it down to the T to where I know, ‘OK, I can use this move during this time.’ Phil’s been a great help.”
Watkins has the desire to be a big-time player. That is evidenced by her two favorite players, Devin Booker of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Arike Ogunbowale of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, known for pouring in the points and hitting clutch shots.
“I’ve been a big fan of hers since the Final Four,” Watkins said of the dramatic winning shots from both games of the 2018 Final Four. “She’s a big-game player, and I want to model my game after her, not letting down with any time left on the clock.”
Aiming to develop that mentality factored into her decision to play for USA Basketball this week. Two years ago as a 13-year-old, Watkins had to apply to attend the U16 trials and was one of 156 players to participate. She made it through three rounds of cuts down to the final 42 before being sent home.
“Two years ago, it kind of helped me assess where my level of the game was and what I need to improve on,” Watkins said. “So hopefully I’ll make the team, and I feel like after the camp, I will come back home with more stuff to work on.”
Of course, that was just one of the reasons.
“I mean, it’s USA,” Watkins said. “It’s a big, big brand and why not represent our country? It’s just a big honor. So of course, it’s a no-brainer to want to be on the team.”