For the 51st year in which there has been a Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year in the Golden State, we have a true Golden girl of talent as the honoree. It could only be the multi-faceted junior Juju Watkins from CIF Open Division state champion Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth. She may take even more of a heightened position as an all-time great player next year, but for now let’s just celebrate what she’s done so far.
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With all due respect to the other five finalists for the 2022 Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year award, and every one of them was very deserving, the nominations were pretty much a formality because Juju Watkins from Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth was a slam dunk winner in one of the clearest choices in a history that dates back to 1972. That’s when legendary Ann Meyers is shown as the award winner for the first of three years in her sophomore season. It’s a 50-year history that coincidentally aligns with the 50-year anniversary of Title IX.
With the honor, Watkins joins legends like 1981-1982 winner Cheryl Miller, 1989-1990 winner Lisa Leslie, and 1999-2000 winner Diana Taurasi. All three were two-time Ms. Basketball winners with Juju poised to possibly repeat in her senior season as the first since Taurasi to win twice.
Besides those past legends, when we told Watkins she was following a 51-year history of the Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year honor, the 2022 Gatorade California and National Player of the Year was taken aback. We told her recent Ms. Basketball winners were Jayda Curry of Corona Centennial in 2021, the 2020 winner was Te-Hina Paopao of La Jolla Country Day, in 2019 the winner was Haley Jones of Archbishop Mitty (San Jose), in 2018 Charisma Osborne of Los Angeles Windward won the award, plus many others, including 2017 winner and California’s all-time leading scorer Destiny Littleton of Bishop’s (La Jolla) and NCAA champion South Carolina, and 2016 winner and WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu of Orinda Miramonte.
“Thank you so much, that’s insane,” Watkins said when told she joined several girls basketball legends. “Those are my role models. I wasn’t aware of the history of this award but just hearing about it makes me feel more honored.”
Even before she dazzled the crowd and drew ooh’s and aah’s at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento with her moves in the Trailblazers’ 85-61 victory over Archbishop Mitty in the CIF Open Division state championship game, Watkins was a heavy favorite to win the Ms. Basketball honor. Then, when Juju hit the first of two three-pointers from a foot beyond the NBA line, more than one scribe on press row had this “here we go” look on their faces. For the game, Watkins had a monster double-double 23 points and 19 rebounds with six assists, six blocked shots and three steals. At some points in the game she didn’t even look to score, instead she looked to feed sophomore stars MacKenly Randolph and Izela Arenas with no-look passes, plus others
We said the honor was achieved in a landslide but that was only buttressed by several top-notch state-ranked coaches, and not just 2019 State Coach of the Year and Sierra Canyon head coach Alicia Komaki. In fact, two of the coaches have had Ms. Basketball winners.
One of those coaches, Sue Phillips of Archbishop Mitty, who coached 2019 winner Jones, coached Watkins when she led the USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team to the FIBA Americas championship this past summer, earning tournament MVP honors. Plus, she coached against Juju and lost in the state championship. The other coach, Kelly Sopak of Carondelet (Concord), who also coaches the Cal Stars club team, had a nominee in the hunt with Stanford-bound Talana Lepolo. Sopak also coached 2016 winner Ionescu.
Phillips saw first-hand what kind of overall game Watkins has.
“She’s a walking bucket,” Phillips said in her initial response and then continued.
“It’s no secret that high level elite players can take over a game with the ball in their hands, but Juju can dominate the game with or without the ball,” Phillips remarked. “Lots have been said about Juju’s ability to score at all three levels, no doubt it’s fantastic, but there’s not enough praise for her ability to pass, rebound and wreak havoc. She’s the total package.”
“I had a finalist in Talana but regardless of what team she played on it is refreshing to see the best player earn the top award,” Sopak said. “Juju was the best player in the state, played on the best team in the state, and is very deserving to win the top honor in the state, which is Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball. She earned it.”
Komaki has coached some great players and coached against them, and as a player at Fullerton Troy she played against some of the best. What makes Juju so special?
“One major separator is her practice habits. She seeks excellence every day,” Komaki said. “In our time together, she never took a day off mentally, she never had a bad practice. That is unbelievable if you really think about it. A 16-year old did not take a day off mentally. It exhibits her desire to be the best. Her discipline is incredible, her drive is inspiring.”
On the season, Watkins averaged 25.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.9 blocks per game but when the playoffs started she seemed to take it to another level.
Starting with the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs, the 6-foot-1 Watkins averaged 27.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per game for the seven games played. Against Cathedral Catholic in the opening round of the SoCal Open playoffs, and up against Connecticut-bound Isuneh “Ice” Brady, she went for a triple-double 37 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. In the CIF Southern Regional title game, Watkins helped avenge a loss to Etiwanda in the CIF Southern Section Open Division title game with a double-double 29 points and 13 rebounds in the third-seeded Trailblazers’ 61-50 victory over the top-seeded Eagles.
“I think that when playoffs came around I had a kind of this all or nothing mindset, and I did whatever I had to do to win,” Watkins said. “It was very important for me to win the state championship because it was a major reason why I transferred. To win a state championship had always been a goal of mine that I wanted so badly to accomplish.”
Sierra Canyon already had two established sophomore stars with NBA dads, Randolph and Arenas, and even after transferring Juju wasn’t able to play the first five games until the CIF Southern Section approved her transfer. Even though Sierra Canyon won those first five games in what turned out to be a 30-2 season, how was she able to fit in so quickly?
“I did fit in right away,” Watkins responded. “It almost felt as if I was like a missing piece to their puzzle. There was so much talent before I transferred and when I came it felt as if we were going to be unstoppable.”
“Everyone wanted to win which was why it was so easy playing with these girls,” Juju continued. “Everyone would always do their part which motivated me even more because not only did I want to win for myself but I wanted to win even more badly for the team.”
Komaki sees the traits even more deeply.
“I feel like I have been coaching this kid for years,” Komaki said. “She not only fit in with our culture, her teammates, the school, but she fits with me and my passion, my drive.”
“I believe Juju has the perfect blend of confidence, arrogance, pride and humility,” Komaki continued. “She doesn’t doubt, she’s reliant. She doesn’t boast, she swaggers. She isn’t driven by accomplishment or former glory but stays present. She is full of self-confidence without going on an ego trip. This makes her special.”
Like elite players at every level, Watkins has lots of positive attributes and a few things to work on.
“Juju has a ton of characteristics that have contributed to her greatness,” Komaki said. “Some of her best are consistency, competitive drive, humility, passion, standards, commitment and coachability.”
“The scary thing is how much she improved over the course of a season and will continue to during her high school career and beyond,” Komaki continued. “Like anyone, Juju has many areas she can improve on to further expand her game and her leadership. Knowing her, she’s already working on them.”
In the 2021 State Sophomore of the Year write-up, it was mentioned that Juju has strong family ties to Los Angeles and in particular the Watts neighborhood. Watkins, who grew up in Watts, often practices at the gym named after her late great-grandfather, Ted Watkins, an activist who founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to provide jobs and social services after the 1965 riots in Watts.
Watkins works just as hard in the classroom with 3.8 GPA as she does on the hardwood. As for college offers? Is there any major D1 program that wouldn’t want Watkins.
Komaki pretty much summed it up.
“Juju is a generational talent,” Komaki remarked. “Our youth idolize her, peers wish they could play with her, adults are eager to watch her, and basketball lovers appreciate her. The hype is real.”
What about next year?
“I know my time in high school is winding down so next year I’m looking to a repeat,” Watkins said.
We didn’t ask Watkins if that meant an Open Division championship or another Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year honor because it doesn’t matter. Juju is an odds on favorite for both.
Congratulations Judea “Juju” Watkins, the 2022 Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
MS. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
ALL-TIME HONOREES LIST
(All selections by Cal-Hi Sports)
Note: All-time list before 1980 compiled by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis, based on research.
2022 Juju Watkins, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, 6-1 Jr.
2021 Jayda Curry, Corona Centennial, 5-6
2020 Te-hina Paopao, La Jolla Country Day, 5-10
2019 Haley Jones, San Jose Archbishop Mitty, 6-2
2018 Charisma Osborne, Los Angeles Windward, 5-9 Jr.
2017 Destiny Littleton, La Jolla Bishop’s, 5-9
2016 Sabrina Ionescu, Orinda Miramonte, 6-0
2015 Katie Lou Samuelson, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-3
2014 Jordin Canada, Los Angeles Windward, 5-7
2013 Kelsey Plum, La Jolla Country Day, 5-10
2012 Nirra Fields, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 5-8
2011 Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis,
Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-0
2010 Chelsea Gray, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-11
2009 Layshia Clarendon, San Bernardino Cajon, 5-9
2008 Jasmine Dixon, Long Beach Poly, 5-11
2007 Jeanette Pohlen, Brea Olinda, 6-1
2006 Jacki Gemelos, Stockton St. Mary’s, 6-0
2005 Courtney Paris, Piedmont, 6-4
2004 Candice Wiggins, La Jolla Country Day, 5-11
2003 Dominique Banks, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-8
2002 Sa’de Wiley-Gatewood, Lynwood, 5-7 Soph.
2001 Loree Moore, Harbor City Narbonne, 5-8
2000 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11
1999 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11 Jr.
1998 Michelle Greco, La Crescenta Crescenta Valley, 5-10
1997 Erin Buescher, Santa Rosa Rincon Valley Christian, 6-2
1996 Maylana Martin, Perris, 6-3
1995 Renee Robinson, Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, 5-10
1994 Nicole Erickson, Brea Olinda, 5-7
1993 Danielle Viglione, Fair Oaks Del Campo, 5-10
1992 Charisse Sampson, Los Angeles Washington, 5-11
1991 Tanda Rucker, Berkeley, 5-7
1990 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5
1989 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5 Jr.
1988 Trise Jackson, Lynwood, 5-7
1987 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2
1986 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2 Jr.
1985 Sharon Turner, Oceanside El Camino, 5-9
1984 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3
1983 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3 Jr.
1982 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2
1981 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2 Jr.
1980 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8
1979 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Jr.
1978 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Soph.
1977 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1
1976 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1 Jr.
1975 Anita Ortega, Los Angeles, 5-9
1974 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-9
1973 Ann Meyers, Anaheim Connelly, 5-8 Jr.
1972 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-8 Soph.
Note: List also extends back with assorted years back to 1905 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend