March 31, 2024 

JuJu Watkins’ playmaking might be her most underrated skill

The freshman star has shown herself to be an impactful playmaker.

PORTLAND, Ore. – JuJu Watkins has been shattering all kinds of scoring records during her freshman season with the USC Trojans. During USC’s Sweet 16 win in the NCAA Tournament, she surpassed former Ohio State and current Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell for second all-time on the freshman season NCAA Division I scoring list. She now sits just seven points away from tying Tina Hutchinson’s record of 898 points as a freshman.

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When the Trojans defeated Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, JuJu Watkins set a school record for the most points scored in a single season, passing USC legend and Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller in the process.

But Watkins’ game consists of much more than just putting up a lot of points. She’s a capable defender, highlighted by her defensive effort against Baylor guards Sarah Andrews and Jada Walker in the fourth quarter of the Trojans’ Sweet 16 win.

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She grabs rebounds if she needs to; she’s had eight games of double-digit rebounding this season including the NCAA Tournament. But perhaps the most underrated part of her game may be her playmaking in terms of the conversation surrounding her this year.

Watkins finished with four assists against Baylor, but it’s not just getting assists specifically that highlights her playmaking game. Against Baylor, in the fourth quarter in particular, Watkins did a phenomenal job reading the defense and moving the ball where it needed to be.

She’s still developing this part of her game and will continue to do more of it if the team needs it.

“It’s still developing. I think that even though I had 30, it wasn’t my best night,” Watkins told media following the win against Baylor. “But honestly it’s just doing whatever it takes to win. I think that’s the priority always, whether it’s defensively making the right play, getting off of it, stuff like that, it’s just whatever I need to do.”

When Baylor closed the gap and briefly surged ahead in the second half, that’s when Watkins really went to work looking for her teammates around the basket and out at the three-point line. In the third quarter, Watkins found Rayah Marshall twice for buckets near the rim.

And perhaps her biggest assist of the night came with the Bears leading 64-62 late in the fourth quarter. Watkins came downcourt after a defensive stop and dumped a pass off to Clarice Akunwafo for an easy two that tied the game.

Although JuJu Watkins believes her playmaking is still developing, USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb is amazed at how advanced that part of her game is.

“It’s unbelievable what she handles. You cannot put one person on her, she will score. You can’t really put two, you kind of have to show a lot of bodies. For her to end up with 30 and four assists on not her best shooting night, I do think she’s feeling the floor incredibly well,” Gottlieb told media following the win. “We talk about reads and next level reads and trusting her teammates and just making the right play. I think she’s always been really capable of that, I don’t think she came in only as a scorer … I think what’s evolved is just seeing the court and understanding where she needs to get the ball and what reads she can make out of that.”

During a brief stoppage in the game with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Gottlieb called Watkins over to the bench and spoke with her for a while. From that period on, Watkins came up big with clutch play after clutch play, whether it was a basket, a pass, or free throws.

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South Carolina averaged 46.3 rebounds per game this year. Since 1988, only two teams that won the national championship have averaged more boards per game: 1988 Louisiana Tech and 1995 UConn.

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When asked about the brief chat, Watkins was honest and remarked that she couldn’t quite remember what was said, but that there was a clear sense of urgency with what was at stake. However, Gottlieb could recall what was said, and it centered on making the game easier for Watkins so she could make those plays.

“It was me asking her, I’m trying to empower her more, where can I get it to you?” Gottlieb recalled. “I didn’t love her up at the top and they could just throw bodies. So that’s when I started trying to get it to her at the elbow and let her make plays from there and I think that’s when she dimed one to somebody off of that drive … For me there’s just so much, how can I get it to make it difficult for the defense and easy for her to see her reads. And other people do a really good job of playing off of her.”

JuJu Watkins may have had an off-shooting game, but her teammates and coaches continue to have faith in her ability to make the right plays. Gottlieb has mentioned quite often throughout the season Watkins’ ability to make adjustments in real-time from quarter to quarter and even from minute to minute.

The team’s confidence in her is a huge reason why Watkins continues to deliver in big moments.

“It really all just boils down to the trust that everybody has in me. Despite me not shooting well tonight, I think that when the game is on the line, I think my teammates trust in me to attempt a bucket,” Watkins said. “We just want to win. Whatever it is I can contribute or try to do for the team, I’m gonna do it.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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