High School Championship Teammates Going After Gold in FIBA U17 World Cup
After a storybook first high school season together in which they won the California Open Division state championship, Mackenly Randolph and Judea “Juju” Watkins are together again and chasing gold in Europe.
They are among 12 players on the USA Basketball Women’s U17 National Team competing at the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary, from July 9-17.
“That’s my best friend, so it’s always great to be on the court and off the court with her,” Watkins said of Randolph. “I’m super excited that she was picked for this, too.”
Watkins was a dominant force last summer in the FIBA U16 Americas Championship, averaging 20 points per game as the U.S. won all six games and the gold medal. Ranked as one of the top guards nationally by ESPN in the Class of 2023, Watkins is looking forward to adding another international memory.
“It feels great to be back and I just think it’s an honor to be able to be coached by coach Sue (Phillips, U17 head coach) and just be part of a group of amazing and talented girls,” she said. “I feel like I kind of have advantage since I was here last year and just knowing what our core values here are, USA Basketball’s core values, and speaking up more and taking more of a leadership role.”
Randolph, the daughter of former NBA All-Star Zach Randolph, is making her U.S. debut.
“Ever since they sent out the invite list, I’ve just been working so hard just to build stamina and better my craft and just perfect things that I’m good at,” Randolph said. “This is all like a dream come true because I would never have thought that I would be here in this situation wearing USA across my chest, but it’s just honestly amazing and just an honor and a blessing to even be here.”
Randolph has been on the radar of women’s basketball fans for some time, not only because of her father but also because she was a close friend of the late Gigi Bryant and was mentored by her dad, NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Randolph insists that her background doesn’t put any extra pressure on her to perform.
“Definitely playing for Kobe and being able to have a relationship and build those bonds with him, it’s honestly just an honor to even be one of his players or wear the mamba,” she said. “My dad played in the league for so long, I’ve been around it a lot and I know there’s high expectations, but I just wanted to be myself and not Zach Randolph’s daughter. So I just feel I have to work and improve myself.”
Watkins and Randolph teamed up for the first time this past season at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, California, powering their way to a state title. Watkins averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and won multiple honors including the 2022 Gatorade California Girls Basketball Player of the Year and a second Los Angeles Times Player of the Year award in three years.
It was her first year at Sierra Canyon, against whom she famously had a 44-point, 22-rebound effort the season before while at Windward School in Los Angeles.
Randolph felt that she gained immensely from uniting with her friend, joking about being the younger of the two but also relishing the memory of the season the duo put forth.
“That’s my best friend, that’s my ride or die. She’s a little bit older than me, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll still give her buckets any day,” Randolph said. “Us being able to come here together and also play basketball in high school, winning the state championship and accomplishing these things together, it’s really something for us to look back on in the future.”
Both players are also enjoying the experience of being coached by Phillips, the longtime coach at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California. Archbishop Mitty lost to Sierra Canyon in the state title game this past year. Watkins had 23 points and 19 rebounds, and Randolph scored 13.
“We’ve been working hard in the gym and really put our thinking caps on and trying to digest everything coach is giving us and I think we’ve grown a lot at these practices we’ve had,” Watkins said.
Watkins said her USA Basketball experience last year was vital to her growth because the trip to the FIBA Americas Championship required her to adjust to not being with her family. That’s something Randolph is now experiencing.
“I’m expecting gold, that’s a must, but I know it’s going to be a challenge,” Randolph said. “We’re going to have to work real hard and really, everybody is going to have to show up and play their best for us to get gold.”
Santosh Venkataraman is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.