THE CAMPUS IS HUMMING when Alicia Komaki blows her whistle for the first time in the 2022-23 Sierra Canyon girls basketball season.
October 31. Outside the gym, students dressed in Halloween costumes, complete with expensive sneakers, designer backpacks and bags, wait for their parents to pick them up from a private school in Chatsworth, California. A line of luxury cars—Range Rover, Tesla, BMW—make their way around a fenced-in parking lot while a security guard forbids traffic. One by one, students stare at their iPhones as they leave the school, which charges more than $40,000 a year in high school tuition and claims students and parents go by last names like Kardashian and James.
In the gym, the twin girls, dressed in black and red race car-themed jumpsuits, walk beside the stands. Their father is Sean “Diddy” Combs. Later, Bronnie James walks by. His father, well, you know who his father is.
The sound of Coach Komaki’s whistle breaks the commotion and banishes the beaming smile from Juju Watkins’ face. Everything that was funny is forgotten. The time has come.
The No. 1 female basketball rookie who received offers from countless schools and narrowed his choices to South Carolina, Stanford, and the University of Southern California has been a source of buzz across the country for months, for years. The game is so big, strong, versatile and skillful that it has attracted fans, scouts, coaches and professionals into its orbit. Last season, the 6ft phenom was asked to autograph a fan’s face with a marker. Last summer she trained with James Harden and Kevin Durant. Last month, she signed with Nike and starred in commercials with LeBron James and her classmate and friend Bronnie.
The best high school basketball player in the country and arguably the best high school player in years, Watkins is no celebrity kid. She’s her own celebrity, whether she believes it or not.
“She is the talent of a generation,” Komaki says. “I don’t think we’ll see anyone else like her.”
And now, at the dawn of a new season, her last school season, everyone wants to see what happens next. How will her senior season develop? Will it lead Sierra Canyon to another state championship? Which college will she choose?
But for Watkins, a two-time U.S. Basketball Champion and MVP who averaged 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks for Sierra Canyon last season, all that matters is this moment, this practice. The fame, glamor, and fame around her—everything within her reach—mean nothing. As she steps into the first team meeting of the season, her eyes meet those of her coach. She’s ready. At the moment. For this opportunity to improve.
“I feel like a lot of people are so caught up in what’s about to happen and what the future looks like,” says Watkins, “that they don’t pay attention to what’s about to happen now.”
FOUR WEEKS AGO, On a Monday morning, Watkins sits in Komaki’s office in his spare time, engrossed in his homework.
Every day, the girls from the Sierra Canyon basketball team sneak into the coach’s office. The long, narrow room right in front of the gym is filled with framed images of various championship teams, stacks of boxes of Nike sneakers, and mountains of T-shirts and gear. This is their refuge during the day. This is their training room. Here they get to know each other off the court.
This October morning, Komaki sits at his desk and enjoys a rare moment of silence. She then receives a notification on Twitter: “BREAKING NEWS: NIKE CLOSED DEALS WITH THE TOP 5 AMATEUR BASKETBALL PLAYERS.” Komaki quickly reads that Watkins, along with Sierra Canyon Boys Basketball star Bronnie James, Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, Stanford guard Hayley Jones, and 2023 Defensive Player of the Year DJ Wagner have signed with Nike.
“I said, ‘Hey Juju, is this real?’ And she doesn’t even look up,” Komaki recalls. “She says, ‘Yes.’ As if she already knew what I was going to talk about. I replied, “Cool. Congratulations!” And that was it. It fit so well with everything she is.”
This deal with Nike was a big one. Watkins felt flattered. She felt proud. She felt grateful. But when it comes to big life events, the 17-year-old says she reflects on them throughout the day and then returns to the gym. “I feel like it all happened because I was in the gym and kept improving. And so, in order to achieve more … I have to return to the gym and continue to improve my game.
A game that has already been showered with accolades.
In February 2022, Watkins became the first high school athlete to sign with Klutch Sports Group to represent the NIL. Even before she won the state championship the following month and was named Gatorade’s California Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year by Gatorade, Watkins was already considered one of the game’s future stars. In the summer before her junior year, she helped the US Under-16 team win the gold medal and was named the FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship Most Valuable Player. Most recently, she won the FIBA Under-17 World Championship with Team USA and averaged 13.1 points along with 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 steals to help the USA set a 7- 0 and win a gold medal. She was again named MVP.
“She is not trying to create a buzz around her game. She’s just trying to improve her game,” says US basketball coach Sue Phillips. “She is unique in that she has a small forward physique but plays like a scoring defender but can also see the floor and distribute the ball like a point guard, rebound like a power forward. her ability to stop at a dime and get up.”
Phillips, who has been a coach for three decades, adds, “I coached Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi and compared to high school they were equally dominant. They are just head and shoulders above their peers and that’s where Juju is. She is head and shoulders above her peers in many ways.”
Watkins didn’t miss the opportunity she was given at a time when she could benefit from the NIL. But instead of celebrating his own success in space, Watkins resigns himself.
“If I was a year older than I am now, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this in high school. I am honored, thankful and blessed to be part of breaking down barriers and kicking down all the doors so that the women behind us, all these women, young women can look at this and aspire to do even more or be in the same position,” says Watkins.
When Watkins chooses to be humble, her best friend and teammate McKenley Randolph (daughter of two-time NBA All-Star Zach Randolph) reminds her of how important these moments are and that it’s okay to experiment with them a little. They have plenty of time to chat – Watkins, who has neither a car nor a license, is constantly sitting in the passenger seat of Randolph’s black Mercedes SUV.
“I remember saying, ‘What the fuck? You really just did it!” I was screaming,” Randolph says of Watkins’ Nike deal. “She’s like, ‘Everyone texts me and blah blah blah. I said, “Girl, you better live right now because you literally just signed with Nike. Of course, everyone will text you!”
Less than two weeks after closing the Nike NIL deal, Watkins starred in a Nike commercial alongside LeBron, Bronnie and Bryce James. On her Instagram page, where she has a blue tick, close to 100,000 followers and only 28 posts, she shared several stories and photos of the day.
The caption made no mention of her own accomplishment in a nationally sized commercial. Instead, Watkins focused on thanking the James family for the opportunity to appear with them.
“I am humble because I have a humble beginning,” says Watkins. “I try not to get too distracted by what comes along with this lifestyle. Just keep your head up and focus on getting better.”
AGED Watkins, 7, played basketball for the first time after her uncle signed her up for a recreational league in Westchester Park, about 15 minutes from her hometown of Watts, California.
Playing with her little cousin, Watkins experienced the joy of basket weaving. She felt a surge of rivalry, even if it was against other elementary school students. She became interested in sports.
Watkins’ parents, Sari and Robert Watkins, both played basketball in high school. Watkins, the youngest of four, played basketball with her older brother in the backyard and said he helped make her “hardier” at a young age. But Watkins has never been pressured into exercising outside the driveway. Her mother wanted her to play tennis like Venus and Serena Williams, but Watkins wasn’t interested.
“I had to go to my mom and say, ‘I want to do this.’ For her to say, “Okay, now let me put something on you.” They really made me really take something seriously, because the whole point of them is, “Don’t do anything if you’re not going to get into it completely,” says Watkins.
Watkins knew that when she asked to play basketball more seriously, and not just in the sports league, she would dedicate her whole being. “This is what I live for, be really passionate about what you choose to do,” says Watkins.
When she was 10 years old, Watkins was playing her first year of traveling and she struggled to keep up because she lacked some basic skills. After sitting game after game on the bench, Watkins broke down one night on her way home with her mother. “I remember asking her, ‘What happened? Sari says. “And she’s like, ‘Mom, can you teach me how to play basketball? Please, mom, just please, could you and dad teach me what to do?” That night, Watkins’ parents sat down at the kitchen table and came over. with a plan for teaching their daughter.
For the next couple of years, Watkins worked out every day with her parents in the backyard or at the Watts Gym named after …