USC’s JuJu Watkins reminding herself to ‘play my game’ amid rise in attention – Daily News


LOS ANGELES — One of the more random assortments of people you’ve ever heard of shared the same room on Monday night.

They gathered inside the locker room of the USC women’s basketball team after the Trojans played Arizona, actor Will Ferrell and rapper Fabolous and WNBA Hall of Famer Tina Thompson, and there was almost no hypothetical situation that could be imagined in which these people would ever cross immediate paths. Except for one, the reality of the situation: they were here to watch JuJu Watkins, just as Chris Brown and Jason Sudeikis and other A-to-Z-listers have pulled up to the Galen Center this winter for a glimpse of the next big thing.

And as head coach Lindsay Gottlieb told it, in perhaps imperfect detail – after USC’s 81-64 victory over Arizona on Monday, USC alumnus Ferrell came up to Gottlieb, telling her about a text conversation he’d had with fellow funnyman Sudeikis.

Have you heard about JuJu? Sudeikis texted.

“He’s like, ‘Of course I have,’” Gottlieb recalled Ferrell telling her. “(Sudeikis) is like, ‘I’m going tonight.’ (Ferrell’s) like, ‘I’m going Monday!’”

“I’m like, ‘They’re texting about JuJu?’” Gottlieb continued. “‘What’s going on?’”

Indeed, the level of excitement around the program is something never lost on her, Gottlieb said – and only growing with each coming week, USC on a four-game winning streak as Watkins continues a historic run. Through 22 games, USC’s winning percentage (at 18-4) is its best since 1993-94, when former legend Cheryl Miller coached the Trojans to an Elite Eight run in the NCAA tournament; Miller has been back loud and proud on the sidelines for this USC team, jokingly cuddling Ferrell on the JumboTron at the Arizona game and embracing senior Kayla Padilla after the win.

The attention is a gift, to a blooming program stepping back into the national spotlight for the first time in decades. It’s also a curse, to Watkins, who as an 18-year-old freshman has perhaps more responsibility on her shoulders than any other player in the nation – period, full stop. As of Thursday night, she ranks second in the nation in women’s college basketball in scoring – and averages the highest percentage of her team’s points of any other 20-point-per-game scorer.

Against Arizona, she was hounded by opposing point guard Jada Williams and shadowed by perimeter help any time she caught the ball in the halfcourt. Each new week is an adventure in adaptation for Watkins; she often starts slow, with 1-of-5 type lines, before she finds defensive gaps with her jumper and gets downhill in transition.

“I think just having patience in myself – I have so much trust in Coach Lindsay and my teammates, and they have trust in me, which also just gives me so much pride in how I play,” Watkins said Monday night, when asked about handling the increased attention both on and off the court. “And I think, just reminding myself to play my game will take me very far.”

Her game, though, has expanded in a matter of mere months. Watkins ranks first in usage rate in women’s college basketball, as recorded by HerHoopStats. Understanding how to get others involved was always the next step in her development, frequent trainer and Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy told the Southern California News Group a couple of months ago. The ball control needs work – Watkins had seven turnovers against Arizona – but suddenly, she’s making advanced-level reads out of the pick-and-roll and against a variety of coverages, particularly in zipping passes to the weak-side wing and corner.

After an up-and-down start in conference play, USC is currently tied for fourth in the Pac-12 at 8-4 after four straight wins; the Trojans will be tested hard into March, particularly in a game in Corvallis, Oregon on Sunday against 11th-ranked Oregon State (20-3, 9-3 Pac-12). And their fortunes will continue to rest on Watkins’ ability to adapt to, and grow through, the attention that comes her way.

“The amount that’s on her shoulders – to be able to make those plays is spectacular,” Gottlieb said of Watkins’ passing Monday.

USC at Oregon

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.

TV/radio: Pac-12 Los Angeles/790 AM


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