March 5, 2024 

Guards galore: The best candidates for Pac-12 All-Freshman team

Breaking down the top newcomers out West, with their own insights

The transition from high school to college basketball is rarely an easy one for players. The training is different, the level of play across competition is higher, and every freshman has to adjust.

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So, of the roughly 40 freshmen in the Pac-12 this 2023-2024 season, including redshirts, who has impressed the most in their rookie collegiate season?

These are players who not only have impressive statistics but are difference makers for their team, showing out with some of their best performances in the biggest moments.

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Jada Williams – Arizona

Jada Williams (2) features for the Wildcats vs Washington at McKale Center. Feb. 18, 2024 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Marison Bilagody/Arizona Athletics)

Jada Williams came out of Kansas City, Missouri as one of the most impressive recruits to ever sign with the Arizona women’s basketball program. Before Arizona, Williams was a 2023 McDonald’s All-American, 2023 SLAM All-American, and member of the inaugural Nike Hoops Summit team in 2023. The four-year high school captain was named to the All-Conference, All-District and All-State teams for three years, and earned MVP or Co-MVP each of her four seasons. Williams also boasts a wealth of U.S. youth national team experience and has several gold medals to prove it.

Early in her rookie season, Williams’ numbers were unexpectedly low, but they have picked up throughout the season. At the end of regular season, she’s averaging 9.5 points, 2.4 assists, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 29.7 minutes per game.

Gaining simultaneous experience and wins

The transition hasn’t necessarily been difficult for Williams but it has been unexpected.

“I would say it was just different than I expected. I think growth comes in in ways that you don’t expect. I think that’s the good part about growth,” Williams told The Next. Through the season, Williams embraced this adversity and adapted as necessary.

The Wildcats generally underperformed expectations early in the season, then saw an increasing numbers of injuries and departures hamper the roster. At times, Arizona have played the second half of the season with as few as seven players. But recently the Wildcats have pulled out some massive victories, Williams has to been key in all the wins and close games.

Arizona went on a four game win streak, taking down Washington State and Washington (in triple overtime), then sweeping a Bay Area road trip at Stanford and California. In Maples Pavilion, Williams scored a career-high 23 points to help her team upset the No. 3 Cardinal.

The winning streak only ended in a double overtime loss to No. 7 USC where Williams recorded a career-high five assists, adding 14 points at key moments. Arizona ended the Pac-12 regular season with a 8-10 record in conference play, but the recent run has put the Wildcats on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament.

“I think right now we’re peaking at the right time so this year we’re going to be able to make a run,” Williams told The Next. “[The season] was up and down as [but], as a freshman, I think it was good to hit these marks early because now we’re going to know how to handle it in the future,” Williams said of the early adversity.

Head coach Adia Barnes sees Williams tremendous improvements clearly. “[Jada Williams has] improved being more of a vocal leader, more confident and comfortable,” Barnes told The Next. “She’s shooting the ball better than she was early. She was a little bit banged up and just hadn’t had a whole lot of time to rest, so I think she’s more confident, more settled, has adjusted to the pace of college basketball.” 

Barnes also acknowledged that seeing so many minutes as a freshman has further helped Williams’ development: “She has a tremendous opportunity. She’s playing a lot. She’s taken advantage of it — we don’t have a lot of numbers. She’s stepped into a role and she’s maximized it, and she’s done a really good job.”

Impact beyond the stat sheet

Williams’ impact goes far beyond what can be seen on the stat sheet. While defense has always been a focus for Williams, she admits she struggled at first, getting caught ball watching or just not taking the lead on defensive organization. Throughout Pac-12 play the standout has made important strides in technique and focus.

“I would say the biggest area of growth for me [this season] would definitely be defense,” Williams said. “I think I’ve really locked down and been confident in that and knowing that that’s something I need to do, and the rest of the team needs to do, to win.”

In the final game of the regular season, Williams recorded a season-high five steals against UCLA and continued to be a menace for opponents. And while Arizona’s coaching staff being full of personnel known for defense has been very helpful, Williams admitted she’s surprised at how quickly she’s upped her game defensively.

“I think that’s a little bit of them, that’s a little bit of me, and that’s a little bit of just taking initiative and really locking down on that,” Williams said.

It’s in that way that, despite her youth, she has already become the leader of a veteran team. Williams is who you see clapping and cheering on her teammates every time they force a turnover, speaking passionately in every huddle, leading the way on every offensive possession. 

“I think when I’m on the court I feel like we’re very united, everyone’s communicating and everyone’s on the same page,” Williams said.

This crucial aspect of her game has improved already this season. Williams feels she has grown as a leader, improving her communication and leading by example. She has grown into her new role beautifully but is still learning to lead fifth-year seniors as a freshman. She continues to be confident in the knowledge that she is the right player for the role and that Arizona is built for success, both now and in the future.

“I think we have a good core group here,” Williams told The Next. “We have the right people on staff. I’m just so excited to see how far we can go.”

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Donovyn Hunter – Oregon State

Donovyn Hunter (4) brings the ball up the floor for Oregon State. (Photo by Karl Maasdam/Oregon State Athletics)

Oregon State is led by multiple All-American-level players, so it is easy for Donovyn Hunter to go unnoticed despite playing starting point guard every game but one of her college career so far.

Hunter’s basic stats won’t immediately amaze you — in 26.2 minutes per game, the Medford, Ore. native is averaging 6.5 points, 3.4 assists and 0.8 steals, shooting 46.7% from two and 32.5% from three. Make no mistake however, Hunter can shoot and those numbers will likely increase, she showed as much in high school. She also said it’s been a big help that her family is only an hour or so away and attends all of her games.

“Just seeing how proud they are of all the work that I’ve put in — and the hours that every parents’ kid puts in at the college level — to see them be able to make every game is really special to me,” Hunter told The Next.

But even the numbers she is putting up rate well, as those 3.4 assists per game are good for No. 11 in the Pac-12 and her a 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks seventh in the Pac-12 and makes her the only freshman in the top 15.

Beavers head coach Scott Rueck notices her proficiency here as well. ““She is a great ball-handler,” Rueck told media. “I’ve got to give her parents and those who coached her growing up a ton of credit for developing the skills that allow her to be calm and have a tight handle against some of the best pressure you’ll find.”

Like any good point guard would, Hunter passed the credit on to her teammates for her best numbers: “People can praise a point guard for getting X amount of assists but it comes down to if your teammates hit the shots. So for me, having assist numbers there, it’s creds to my teammates,” Hunter told The Next.

Turnovers, she feels, are essentially her responsibility to limit and she feels like “every little mistake matters” even more in Pac-12 play. Hunter has done a very solid job of doing just that but her relatively strong numbers don’t indicate the increased difficulty she has felt.

“It’s only been more difficult because [of] the defensive end,” Hunter said. “Anyone that’s defending you is obviously going two times harder than they are in high school. So to take care of the ball, it takes more thought. But I think of it less because my teammates do a really good job of getting open and making it easy to not have a turnover and to have an assist.”

One of Hunter’s breakout performances came during the Beavers’ late January trip to the mountain states in the Pac-12. Hunter tallied 16 points, four assists and two steals in an upset over No. 4 Colorado on Jan. 26. She then followed that up with multiple career-highs in a win over No. 20 Utah two days later:, registering 17 points, 10 assists, two blocks and two rebounds. The performances earned Hunter Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.

Finding strength in defense, teammates and coaches

Perhaps the 6’0 point guard’s most vital contribution on a nightly basis, though, is on the defensive end. She feels strongest on that end, where she can cause problems for opposition with her above-average length for her position.

“I’d say within just coming into a new environment, the defensive end was the thing that I was less worried about,” Hunter told The Next. “In terms of just having it in the back of my head.”

Defense has always been heavy in Hunter’s mindset. She has learned more throughout her freshman year of college but defense is comfortable for her. She finds comfort in defensive assignments, like “if a coach puts you on a certain player or tells you to bring defensive energy.”

“I go into it thinking, if my shot isn’t falling, if my layups aren’t falling, if I can’t always get the right pass to the right person at the time, the least I can do is at least bring energy on the defensive end,” Hunter said.

But she’s been getting boosts from her fellow Beavers, too. Hunter feels that sophomore forward Timea Gardiner stands out the most among her teammates: “She’s just always speaking to me and always talking to me, even if it’s informational stuff or just getting me motivated for the game to be the best player that I can be. She’s stepped up in that role, especially for everyone on our team.”

On the coaching staff, Aleah Goodman has been particularly helpful to her play on the court. Goodman played under Rueck from 2017-21 before briefly playing professionally for the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA. An all-Pac-12 selection in her time in Corvallis, the former point guard’s on-the-ball experience, especially in how Rueck’s system operate, has been a massive boon for Hunter.

“She’s been amazing,” Hunter said of Goodman. “She’s always giving us tips in practice, in the games when you come off. She’s always telling us small details and what to improve on.”

Goodman can also help Hunter with the demands of leadership that are unique to the point guard position. Balancing the level of responsibility required from that role, even from a freshman, and earning the respect of the veterans on the team without overstepping.

Hunter admits she’s still “learning when to have a voice, when I’m able to speak. But now, transitioning later into the season, I’ve gotten more comfortable. And I get the reassurance from [my teammates] that it’s okay for me to be a leader on the court.”

When she does take the lead, she is purposeful about backing it up with her actions. “I want to be able to back up what I’m telling other people. Whatever I say I also need to be holding myself accountable to that.”

She wanted, and continues to want, to try and gain credibility within her team before stepping further into that leadership role. As her leadership role increases, so will her impact, especially for an Oregon State team that has the potential to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

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Eleonora Villa – Washington State

Eleonora Villa (10) plays point guard for Washington State University. (Photo by Ashley Davis/WSU Athletics)

Eleonora Villa is unique in this group. Not only did she transition from highschool to college basketball but she moved across the world from Lissone, Italy. Prior to Washington State, Villa played club basketball for Limonta Sport Costa Masnaga in Italy’s Serie A2 for three seasons. She’s also been fixture in the Italian National Women’s Basketball program since 2020, representing her country at the U-17 and U-18 levels.

It is precisely that experience that Villa and her head coach Kamie Ethridge feel has helped her transition to a new country smoothly. Her experience particularly helped her understand the game tactically while the physicality was newer, Villa told The Next. Playing at that high level also helped her find confidence faster once in Washington.

“When you play in a semi pro [league] or on your national team against so many elite players, with elite players, that’s the best experience you can have as a young person,” Ethridge told The Next. “That’s the one thing we’ve noticed with our internationals is their IQ’s a little bit further along, their maturity … I think that’s made her just a really great teammate, and someone that kind of has a pro mentality in how she treats practice and games and she’s not gone through the kind of roller coaster ride of some freshmen.”

So far, Villa has averaged 12.8 points, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 rebounds in 32.8 minutes per game for the Cougars. She hits nearly half of her shots from two and 33.8% from three. While leading her team from the point she takes good care of the ball with just a 12.4% turnover percentage, ranking in the 89th percentile in the nation (per CBB Analytics).

One of Villa’s most impressive performance came at the perfect time. On the last day of regular season Pac-12 women’s basketball play as we know it, Villa helped her Cougars take down No. 13 Colorado with 20 points, five rebounds and two assists, giving Washington State a massive boost to their NCAA Tournament bid.

The 5’8 guard has oddly enough found particular success scoring in the paint, averaging 5.1 paint points per game. Even though the physicality and size of the Pac-12 game is new to Villa, she loves to use the floater shot that she considers her signature.

New country, new language, new position

Italy is also where Villa first met the Washington State coaches and staff when they travelled to meet and recruit her. That first impression, coupled with her visit to the school, made her fall in love with the Paloose. All the people continued to make her confident that she had chosen the right place with the Cougars.

At first everything was a little confusing and hard because America was all new for Villa, the guard told The Next. Picking up the English language is what scared her the most initially, causing her to question if she was making the best choice. But she’s found the language to not be a big deal and found a Pullman community where the people constantly help her understand everything better. Now, day-by-day, she is gaining confidence in the language and it has gotten easier.

“I’m just happy that I am taking away my fear about the language and just jumping [into] this big experience,” Villa told The Next.

It also doesn’t hurt that Washington State is a multinational team as it is, with Ethridge saying the plethora of international teammates have helped Villa, and others, feel more comfortable.

“The older internationals understand what it was like to come in as a freshman and maybe not speak the language or be uncomfortable and they just are really good with one another and taking care of each other,” Ethridge told The Next.

But while learning a new language is itself an impressive feat, perhaps the most spectacular aspect of Villa’s freshmen success is the fact that she is playing a brand new position. 

“I just think she’s been an amazing player for us this year. She comes in having probably never played point guard before in her life … yet she’s become this phenomenal combo point guard,” Ethridge told The Next.

Villa started playing point guard early in the season, but she was typically playing alongside fellow point-capable guards in Charlisse Leger-Walker and Astera Tuhina. It meant less minutes for Villa, but Ethridge thinks that’s when she was most comfortable. But a short-term injury to Tuhina, which forced her to miss more than a month, followed by a season-ending ACL tear for Leger-Walker has meant that Villa has been increasingly relied upon. Her coach feels she’s handled all the addes responsibility well.

“She’s had to carry us in so many ways but she has just been an amazing competitor and performer and player that just takes what the defense gives her — she doesn’t force things — and I think that’s an amazing quality for a freshman,” Ethridge said.

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Sayvia Sellers – Washington

Sayvia Sellers (0) defends an Oregon State player on February 25, 2024 at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures/UW Athletics)

Sayvia Sellers came out of high school as one of the most decorated players in Alaska state history, as the Anchorage native broke several state records, won multiple championships, was named Alaska player of the year in 2022 and 2023, and garnered national acclaim, earning her a spot at No. 28 in the ESPN 100. Even with the lofty ranking and a perfect 76-0 record in her high school career, Sellers said she didn’t feel any added pressure when arriving on Montlake.

“I don’t think I was feeling a lot of pressure to have high expectations of myself. I was just trying to learn and grow,” Sellers told The Next.

Despite these extensive accolades, success did not come immediately when she joined the Huskies. After two starts in non-conference, Sellers didn’t join the starting lineup for good until Feb. 11. But Sellers’ attitude toward fun, learning and growth being more important than results fits perfectly with the culture focus of the Washington basketball team.

While her minutes played went up and down before the New Year, you could see glimpses of her impact, like when she made four 3-pointers in a close loss to No. 19 Louisville on Dec. 20. But since Pac-12 play began, she’s turned into a vital figure, averaging 8.2 points, 2.2 assists, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in 26.1 minutes per game. 

She’s also proven to be poised with the ball in her hands, making good reads and rarely seeming rushed when looking for her teammates. Her 1.42 assist-to-turnover ratio puts her in the 83rd percentile in the nation (per CBB Analytics) and shows how solid she is with the ball while consistently feeding her teammates.

But what can’t be seen in her stats is the energy impact she brought, initially off the bench and now as a starter. Particularly on the defensive end, Sellers has brought a tenacity that’s shown to be infectious. As her defense has improved throughout the season, so has the Huskies’ defense as a whole, and it’s led to a surge down the stretch.

Fantastic February

February was arguably Sellers’ best month of the season. She played big minutes off the bench in the first three games of the month until an injury sidelined usual starter Jayda Noble. Sellers took her starting role against Cal on Feb. 11 and hasn’t looked back, starting the final six regular season games.

Her impact became apparently too, like when she scored a career-high 20 points in 54 minutes of action in Washington’s triple-overtime loss at Arizona on Feb. 18 — which came two days after a double overtime loss at Arizona State, where she played 42 minutes. 

In one of her most impressive outings of the season, Sellers became the second freshman in UW history to reach double-digit assists in a game and the first since 1982 when she dished 10 assists in a win over Oregon on Feb. 23. Even removing the freshman qualifier, she was the first UW player since 2017 and just the 15th player in program history to reach 10 assists in a game.

The 5’7 guard even carried the efforts into March for the regular season finale, contributing 13 points in the Huskies’ massive upset at No. 18 Utah. In Washington’s first win at Utah since 2017, Sellers was vital in helping hold Utah to 31.5% shooting from the field, well below their season and conference averages.

Confident but humble

Sellers’ head coach Tina Langley thinks that her increasing success throughout the season and earning those starts is because of her humility combined with internal confidence in her talent. Though Sellers is confident in her talent she has the ability — and willingness — to “learn and grow at a fast rate.” Whether she is learning from her teammates or staff, on the court or off, she trusts them to teach her.

Sellers agreed that she is a pretty confident player to begin with but also credited her teammates and coaches for continuing to grow her confidence.

“[Sayvia Sellers is] incredibly talented but incredibly humble, and I think that’s pretty dangerous. And I think that’s why you see her taking off,” Langley said.

It’s likely a longshot for Washington to make the NCAA Tournament. But the Huskies have won three of their last four, including the win over Utah and an upset of Oregon State. If they’re hoping to make a last-chance case for the Big Dance, Sellers will be a big part of their bid.

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JuJu Watkins – USC

USC's JuJu Watkins shoots over two Ohio State defenders in the Hall of Fame Series at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 6, 2023. (Photo credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics)
USC’s JuJu Watkins shoots over two Ohio State defenders in the Hall of Fame Series at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 6, 2023. (Photo credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics)

You didn’t think I forgot JuJu, did you?

Watkins is the most obvious pick for All-Freshman honors and the conference’s freshman of the year award. After all, she’s perhaps one of the top two candidates for the conference *player* of the year, no matter what year, as well as national accolades for freshman and even All-American. Given her numbers, it’s not hard to see why.

Watkins is not leading the conference in scoring average with 27.8 points per game — she’s second in the entire nation, only behind Iowa star Caitlin Clark. The rest of her stats are pretty darn impressive, too: 3.4 assists, 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 1.6 blocks in 33.9 minutes per game. She likely won’t win national player of the year, but that she’s in the discussion at all is a testament to her unbelievable freshman year.

Scoring is where Watkins shines the most. In USC’s upset victory over No. 4 Stanford back on Feb. 2, Watkins scored 51 points to break the USC school record — no small feat, given the legends who have played at the school before her. The SoCal native has never scored less than 15 points in a game this season while tallying 20+ points 22 times, 30+ points in 12 games throughout the season, 42 in a win over Colorado on Feb. 23 and the aforementioned 51-piece.

A whole lot of new

As a senior out of Sierra Canyon High School, Watkins was named the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year and had extensive U.S. youth national team experience. While it’s understandable that there were incredibly high expectations on her as the top recruit in her class, Watkins is not concerned with the expectations of others.

“I hold very high expectations for myself and I think that those are the only ones that I pay attention to,” Watkins told The Next.

Whatever standard she holds herself too, it’s pretty apparent she’s exceeding what others thought was possible and made the transition from high school to college look easy. But Watkins told The Next that it’s actually been a big challenge, both mentally and physically, to adjust to the new environment, new coaches, new setting and longer season. She’s leaned heavily on her teammates and coaches.

“My teammate [India] Otto has been a great help for me … all of my teammates really,” Watkins said. “Coach Lindsay [Gottlieb], she’s an angel. I think she’s the perfect balance between hard on me but also understanding. So I’m just really blessed.”

That’s become a vital network in-game, too. The veteran-heavy USC roster has allowed Watkins to follow their lead, adding her two cents, energy, and encouragement when she feels it necessary but knowing she is not the most knowledgeable.

“We have great leaders like, Kenzie [McKenzie Forbes] and Rayah [Marshall] who have been on this journey a couple of times and have the wisdom and knowledge to kind of lead us through everything,” Watkins told The Next. “So I’m just honestly a sponge under these really brilliant people.”

Skills to take her to next level

But there’s being a sponge and being naturally gifted, and the 6’2 guard has used the bucketload of talent she entered college with brilliantly this year, flashing highlight plays galore. Watkins has proved incredibly difficult matchup to defend on the offensive side of the ball, able to find ways to score no matter what defenses throw at her, and has found an ability to control her pace on the floor.

“I’ve tried to really slow down, my patience and evaluate the floor at a higher level than I previously was. Just slowing down and seeing the floor more and surveying my options, has really been a great help to me,” Watkins told The Next.

Watkins has already ascended to a level of stardom rarely seen from a freshman, and an ESPN panel that includes current WNBA head coaches and general managers recently ranked her as the second-best player in the country in *all* of women’s college basketball at this very moment (once again only behind Clark). Still, the freshman phenom sees areas of her game where she wants to continue to improve.

“I would say, honestly, I’m trying to improve on everything,” Watkins said. “I think, right now what stands out to me most is just my efficiency. That’s something that you can always work on in the game of basketball.”

To be fair to Watkins’ efficiency, she has the highest usage percentage in the country at 44% while shooting an above average 44.1% from two and 34.8% from three. But she also leads the Pac-12 in turnovers, which is explainable in part by the usage but she would surely like to cut down.

The Trojans rely on her for so much of their offense that can make efficiency difficult. She has to balance that knowledge with patience. Watkins feels that with time she will be able to put up the same amount of shots with a higher percentage.

A player who regularly scores 30+ points a game improving her efficiency is a terrifying proposition for opposition defenses. Watkins already scares defenses but she is more than happy to work on scaring them even more: “That’s the goal.”

Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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