Vanessa Nygaard first saw Juju Watkins four years ago at an open house at the Windward School in Los Angeles. Juju was about to enter as a seventh-grader, and Nygaard was the basketball coach for the girls’ high school squad.
Nygaard, a former star at Stanford who played six seasons in the WNBA, had heard about Juju. “Her reputation preceded her,” Nygaard says. With good reason, as it turned out. Wearing jeans and a pair of Vans, Juju leaped up and grabbed the rim, then got a ball, dribbled through her legs a few times, and drained a fadeaway three-pointer.
Nygaard, who was standing with the boys’ basketball coach, Colin Pfaff, was awestruck. “He said, ‘I think that’s the best player I’ve ever seen.’ I said, ‘Maybe that’s what an Olympian looks like.’ We were just amazed. She was just making these boys her age respect women’s basketball.”
Juju wasn’t allowed to play with the high school team until last year, when she was a freshman, but when she finally took the court for Nygaard, it was worth the wait. Juju—who is ranked as the top player in the country in the class of 2023—was named the city’s girls’ player of the year by The Los Angeles Times. At 6 feet, she can handle the ball like a point guard, score buckets in traffic at the rim, and drain three-pointers. She can play anywhere on the floor. “It’s a new age skill set,” says Nygaard.
But that’s not the only reason Judea Watkins is the 2020 SportsKid of the Year. On the court she represents the future of the women’s game, but this year it became more clear than ever that an athlete’s role isn’t limited to what they can do during a game. And that’s one of the things that truly excites Juju when she talks about her future: the opportunity to influence and motivate. “I want to inspire people, no matter where they come from, to believe in yourself and always push to be great,” she says.
In 2020 we saw several instances of athletes—especially women’s basketball players—protesting for racial equality and justice. It’s an issue that means a lot to Juju. She lives in Watts, an inner-city section of Los Angeles known for its minority population. Her great-grandfather was Ted Watkins, who founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), an organization that helps build housing and improve the quality of life for citizens. “He played a big part for me, even though I was too young to meet him,” says Juju, whose grandfather Tim now runs the WLCAC. “But I feel like his legacy passed on to me. So I feel like it’s my responsibility and it’s my turn to give back to my community.”
When Juju started playing basketball around the time she was six, she often competed against boys on a court at the WCLAC. By the time she reached Windward in seventh grade, she was unstoppable. Opponents would throw every defense imaginable at her, including a variation on the box-and-one. Normally in that scheme, four defenders play a zone defense and the other shadows the opposing team’s best offensive threat. In Juju’s case, the four-person box guarded her. It still couldn’t stop her.
Last season, when she finally got to play with the high school team, she didn’t just have to cope with playing against older players. She had to learn to play alongside them as well. “Going [into the season] I was a little timid, but I learned to speak up for myself because that was a big part of becoming a part of the team.
“I feel like a lot of people just expected me to come into high school and become that mediocre player who was good in middle school but doesn’t translate to high school. So I felt like it was up to me to prove them wrong, to prove that I am able to advance and evolve.”
She certainly did. Juju led the team in virtually every official stat (scoring, rebounding, assists, steals) and a few unofficial ones (blocked shots that made even opposing fans go wild). Among the people who noticed her was Kobe Bryant, who followed her on Instagram. “It was crazy,” Juju says. “That was one of the best days of my life.”
One of her best games of the year came on the biggest stage, during the state playoffs on the campus of Long Beach State. “A lot of times freshmen just cave, but she was like, ‘This is my moment,’” says Nygaard. “I have had a chance to work with USA Basketball, and great players don’t get nervous. They get excited for the big game. And I’ve had only one other player, Jordin Canada, who’s actually been excited for the big game like that and not nervous. And she was the number-five pick in the WNBA draft.” In a tough defeat to rival Mater Dei High, Juju scored 28 points.
Shortly after, schools in California were closed due to COVID-19. Over the summer, Juju decided not to play AAU ball to keep herself and her family safe from the coronavirus. She worked with her trainers and honed her shot with her dad, Robert, who doubles as her shooting coach. Juju says she’s already a better shot than Dad, who doesn’t agree. “You’re not going to get a conclusion there,” laughs her mom, Sari.
In addition to helping her with her game, her parents also helped Juju, who is an avid sneakerhead, design her own brand logo. “She’s big on business,” says Robert. “She’s trying to change the women’s game by maybe getting a big shoe deal, a merchandise deal. She’s just trying to change the game so the girls behind her can capitalize on the work she puts in.”
Juju knows she’s a long way off from shoe deals, but that’s not stopping her from aiming high. When her career is over, she says, “I want to be looked at as a Hall of Famer and somebody who changed the game and paved way for equality in sport and equality for females in general.”