Wave of talent carries USC, UCLA women’s basketball into national prominence

LOS ANGELES — Come, sit.

Right here beside me, on the sand.

Ohhh, you’re one of those guys? A Southern Californian who doesn’t like the beach?

Man, what’s wrong with you? Sit.

It’s nice, right? Watching the waves come and go. You can tell when one is going to be big – like that one coming now, you can tell by the way it’s picking up, gathering strength, it’s going to be a good one.

We should probably get to our feet, the tide is rising, and quickly.

It’s JuJu; JuJu’s the tide.

The tide that’s going to lift all the boats: Consider JuJu Watkins’ presence onstage at USC’s Galen Center your invitation, sir, to sit your butt down and watch some women’s basketball.

An open call to ride the wave that’s building here in L.A., where the UCLA women’s team is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in all the land while Watkins’ Trojans, also 6-0, are coming on fast too, going from No. 21 in the preseason to No. 6 in just four weeks.

That’s UCLA’s highest ranking ever and USC’s highest in 30 years, and it’s heady stuff, so players and coaches at both programs will tell you and themselves that it doesn’t mean all that much, because it’s so early. But all that says to me is: They’re just getting started.

Bro, remember last March, when you kept hearing about Caitlin Clark and how she just had to be, like, the greatest women’s basketball player ever? (Mostly from guys who had missed Chamique Holdsclaw and Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker and, before them, USC’s Cheryl Miller.)

And, dude, you know how you, along with a record 12 million other people, tuned in to watch the Iowa star, and saw how great she truly is? How Steph Curry-like, both a show-stopping shooter and a ferocious competitor? And how impressed you were, too, with the players she was hooping against? Likely players you’d never heard of before then, Zia Cooke and Kamilla Cardoso on South Carolina, or Angel Reese and Alexis Morris of LSU?

Remember the awful officiating? Remember the trash-talking? Remember everyone suddenly talking about women’s basketball?

So let’s try this again, shall we? Run the scenario back right here in your own backyard.

You had to catch Clark, now you gotta watch Watkins. Because I’m tellin’ you, buddy, the young woman rockin’ that little beehive of a bun? Stone-cold brilliant.

The national high school player of the year exploded out of the blocks so fast in college she has herself shaking her head: “Crazy. It’s crazy,” she said when I asked her how she’s processing the fact that six games into her college career, she’s already broken Lisa Leslie’s – you’ve heard of her, right? – USC record for most 30-point games as a freshman, with four.

Scoring is just one crayon in the box, though. Watkins is creating a multi-dimensional, full-color panorama. She’s doing LeBron things. Literally, she’s putting up numbers only LeBron James has in a six-game span across all of professional and college basketball over the past 20 years, per Stats Perform’s research: 161 points, 45 rebounds, 19 assists, 14 steals, eight blocked shots and, yes, the six victories.

Like LeBron, she’s already somehow managing to outperform all the grand expectations of her. But unlike her former Sierra Canyon schoolmate-turned-fellow-Trojan Bronny’s dad, she’s no runaway locomotive, no bulldozer.

The 6-foot-2 guard is out here performing basketball ballet, high-brow stuff from an L.A. native for an L.A. audience. Her countless hours of individual training on top of every team practice she’s ever had – can an 18-year-old have applied tens of thousands of hours already? – are both plain to see and invisible to the naked eye, depending on how closely you’re observing.

“When you spend a lot of time alone, or one-on-one, it allows you the space to really learn yourself and play with your creativity and figure out what kind of player you want to be,” Watkins said after practice this past week, open and philosophical in a few-minute chat.

“I try to be an artist, I try to be,” she said. “Because I honestly think basketball’s a form of art. All sports are a form of art, and this is my canvas.”

My man, go see No. 12 paint! And go see her talented teammate 6-4 junior center Rayah Marshall in the paint, the Lynwood High School grad’s a killer complement. Get acquainted with their teammates, grad transfer guards with Ivy League pedigrees, McKenzie Forbes and Kayla Padilla. Learn Aaliyah Gayles’ story, appreciate seeing her scoring points in a college basketball game after having been shot nine times in 2022.

And I’ll warn you, Mister, watching USC is going to get you curious about what’s up with the Bruins, the group that dismantled mighty UConn over the Thanksgiving break, 78-67, without even playing their best game or anything close to it.

UCLA brought back all but two players from the team that reached last season’s Sweet 16, when the tournament’s youngest squad got schooled by South Carolina, an experience that hurt in the best way because of how it fueled the Bruins all offseason.

Now it’s Charisma Osborne, a grad student from Moreno Valley back to finish her business with a six-member class of sensational sophomores. There are the most obvious ones, the smallest and tallest on the floor: 5-4 guard Londynn Jones, from Riverside, and 6-7 center Lauren Betts, the former top-ranked recruit who transferred from Stanford.

There’s Camarillo’s Gabriela Jaquez – wait, Jaquez? Yep, she’s the younger sister of Jaime, the former Bruins star who is proving to be a rookie revelation for the Miami Heat. Watch her play, pal, you’ll be able to tell.

And then there’s the one you won’t be able to take your eyes off of: Kiki Rice, a dynamic and driven playmaker from Maryland, who carved up UConn for 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and who is as marketable as the Nike-sponsored Watkins. Rice’s Jordan Brand deal upon arrival at UCLA last season was the first for any college athlete.

Kiki (or “Ki” to her teammates) and JuJu (or “Ju” to hers), on opposite sides of what should become an intense and beautiful rivalry that benefits both programs for years to come.

“I’m grateful to Lindsay (Gottlieb) in that we share a global view of the game,” UCLA coach Cori Close said of her USC counterpart. “I think, as we both really try to raise the levels of our program, it creates a rise in awareness. I’m really thankful that we both see it as a mutual quest to have people understand how amazing these women are and how elite they are at their craft.

“I hope that we’re not just competing for conference championships, but that we’re in Final Fours against each other.”

Sounds good to Gottlieb.

“I think we both think, ‘Why shouldn’t this be the best rivalry in America?’” Gottlieb said. “We both understand that the success of each of us drives interest all the way around – but also, a good rivalry means heated.”

So, that part. Maaaan, you know these kids aren’t rooting for each other.

“Not really,” Gabriela Jaquez said this week before getting up extra shots with Rice and Jones immediately after a tough practice. “Honestly, I mean, no. I bleed blue.”

And JuJu, the cool new kid on the block who will get to face the Bruins for the first time on Dec. 30 at Pauley Pavilion? Does she harbor any goodwill for the Bruins, if even just for the good of the game?

“Nah,” Watkins said. “That’s not a thing.”

Women’s college basketball in L.A., though? That definitely is. Pull up a seat.