No. 1 basketball recruit Juju Watkins puts game before fame

Amid glitz and glamor at Sierra Canyon, Juju Watkins is perhaps the most decorated student of all. "I try not to get too distracted by what comes along with this lifestyle," she says. "Just keep my head down and focus on getting better." Michelle Groskopf for ESPN

CAMPUS IS BUZZING when Alicia Komaki blows her whistle for the first time of the 2022-23 Sierra Canyon girls basketball season.

It's Oct. 31, and outside the gym, students dressed in Halloween costumes accessorized with high-end sneakers and designer backpacks and tote bags wait for their parents to pick them up from the private school in Chatsworth, California. A line of luxury cars -- Range Rovers, Teslas, BMWs -- wraps around the gated parking lot as a security guard motions the traffic to stop and go. One after another, students, eyes glued to their iPhones, ride away from the school that charges more than $40,000 per year in upper-school tuition and claims students and parents with last names like Kardashian and James.

Inside the gym, twin girls dressed in black and red racecar-inspired jumpsuits walk alongside the bleachers. Their dad is Sean "Diddy" Combs. Later, Bronny James walks by. His dad is, well, you know who his dad is.

The sound of coach Komaki's whistle breaks up the bustle and chases the beaming smile from Juju Watkins' face. Whatever was funny is forgotten. It is time.

The No. 1 recruit in high school girls' basketball, who received offers from countless schools and narrowed her choices to South Carolina, Stanford and USC, has been the source of buzz emanating across the country for months, years. With a game so big, so strong, so versatile, so skilled, she has drawn fans, scouts, coaches and pros to her orbit. Last season, the 6-foot-2 phenom was asked to autograph a fan's face with a Sharpie. Last summer, she practiced with James Harden and Kevin Durant. Last month, she signed a deal with Nike and appeared in a commercial with LeBron James and her classmate and friend, Bronny.

The best high school basketball player in the nation, and maybe the best player the high school game has seen in years, Watkins isn't the child of a celebrity. She is her own celebrity -- whether she believes it or not.

"She's a generational talent," Komaki says. "I don't think we're going to see somebody else like her."

And now, at the dawn of a new season, her final high school season, everyone wants to see what's next. How will her senior season unfold? Will she lead Sierra Canyon to another state championship? Which college will she choose?

But for Watkins, a two-time USA Basketball gold medalist and MVP who averaged 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks last season for Sierra Canyon, all that matters is this moment, this practice. The fame and flash and celebrity all around her -- all within her reach -- mean nothing. As she takes a step toward the first team huddle of the season, her eyes lock with her coach's eyes. She's ready. For this moment. For this opportunity to improve.

"I feel like a lot of people get so caught up in what's going to happen and what the future looks like," Watkins says, "that they aren't paying attention to what needs to happen now."

FOUR WEEKS AGO, on a Monday morning, Watkins sits in Komaki's office during her free period and buries her head in her homework.

Every day, the girls of the Sierra Canyon basketball team mosey their way into the coach's office. Situated right in the front of the gym, the long and narrow room is filled with framed images of the various championship teams, stacks of Nike sneaker boxes and piles of jerseys and gear. It is their place of refuge during the day. It is their study hall. It is where they get to know each other off the court.

This October morning, Komaki sits at her desk and enjoys a rare moment of stillness. Then, she gets a Twitter notification: "BREAKING NEWS: NIKE FINALIZED NIL ENDORSEMENT DEALS WITH FIVE TOP AMATEUR BASKETBALL PLAYERS." Komaki quickly reads that Watkins -- along with Sierra Canyon boys basketball star Bronny James, Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, Stanford guard Haley Jones and top 2023 guard D.J. Wagner -- had signed a deal with Nike.

"I said, 'Hey Juju, is this real?' And she doesn't even look up," Komaki recalls. "She goes, 'Yep.' Like she already knew what I was going to talk about. I responded, 'Cool. Congrats!' And that was it. It was so fitting of everything that she is."

This Nike deal was big. Watkins felt honored. She felt proud. She felt grateful. But when it comes to big life events, the 17-year-old says she reflects on them for a day and then returns to the gym. "I feel like that all happened because of me being in the gym and continuing to get better. And so, in order for more things to come...I have to get back to the gym and keep improving my game."

A game that already has been lavished with praise.

In February 2022, Watkins became the first high school athlete to sign with Klutch Sports Group for NIL representation. Before claiming the state championship the following month and being named the Gatorade California Girls Basketball Player of the Year, Watkins was already deemed one of the game's future stars. The summer before her junior year, she helped the USA U16 national team win a gold medal and was named the most valuable player at the FIBA Americas U16 championship. Most recently, she won the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup with Team USA and averaged a team-high 13.1 points, in addition to 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 steals in helping USA to a 7-0 record and gold medal. She again was named MVP.

"She's not trying to create hype around her game. She's just trying to make her game better," USA Basketball coach Sue Phillips says. "She's unique in that she has a small forward physique but plays like a scoring guard but can also see the floor and distribute like a point guard, rebounds like a power forward. When she gets going in her mid-range, it's almost unguardable because of her ability to stop on a dime and elevate."

Phillips, who has been a coach for three decades, adds, "I've coached against Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi, and comparatively when they were in high school, they were equally dominant. They're just head and shoulders above their peers, and that's where Juju is. She's head and shoulders above her peers in a lot of ways."

It's not lost on Watkins the opportunity that she's been given at a time where she can capitalize on NIL. But instead of celebrating her own success in the space, Watkins humbles herself.

"If I was one year older than what I am now, I would not have been able to accomplish this in high school. I'm honored and grateful and blessed to be a part of breaking more barriers and knocking down all the doors so that women behind us, all these women, younger women can look up to that and aspire to do even bigger things or be in the same position," Watkins says.

When Watkins chooses humility, her best friend and teammate Mackenly Randolph (daughter of two-time NBA All-Star Zach Randolph) reminds her of just how big of a deal these moments are and that it's OK to flex on them a little bit. The two have plenty of time to chat -- Watkins, who has neither car nor license, is a regular in the passenger seat of Randolph's black Mercedes SUV.

"I remember saying, 'What the f---? You really just did this!' I was screaming," Randolph says of Watkins' Nike deal. "She was like, 'Everybody's texting me and blah blah blah.' I was like, 'Girl, you better live it up right now because you literally just signed with Nike. Of course everybody's going to be texting you!'"

Less than two weeks after finalizing her Nike NIL deal, Watkins appeared in a Nike commercial alongside LeBron, Bronny and Bryce James. On her Instagram page, where she has a blue check mark, close to 100,000 followers and only 28 posts, she shared a handful of stories and photos from the day.

The caption didn't flex on her own achievement of landing a national commercial. Instead, Watkins focused on thanking the James family for the opportunity to appear alongside them.

"I'm humble because I come from humble beginnings," Watkins says. "I try not to get too distracted by what comes along with this lifestyle. Just keep my head down and focus on getting better."

AT THE AGE of 7, Watkins dribbled a basketball for the first time after her uncle signed her up for a recreational league at Westchester Park, about 15 minutes from her hometown of Watts, California.

Playing with her little cousin, Watkins experienced the joys of making a basket. She felt the rush of competition -- even if it was just against other elementary school students. She became enamored with the sport.

Watkins' parents, Sari and Robert Watkins, both played basketball in high school. Watkins, the youngest of four, played basketball with her oldest brother in the backyard and said he helped make her "tougher" at a young age. But there was never pressure for Watkins to play the sport beyond the driveway. Her mother wanted her to pursue tennis like Venus and Serena Williams, but Watkins wasn't interested.

"I had to go to my mom and be like, 'I want to do this.' For her to be like, 'OK, well now let me put you in something.' They really forced me to really want to be serious about something because their whole thing is, 'Don't do nothing if you're not going to be fully in it,'" Watkins says.

Watkins knew that when she asked to play basketball more seriously, beyond just the rec league, she was going to dedicate her entire being. "That's something that I live by, be really passionate behind what you choose to do," Watkins says.

When she was 10, Watkins played her first year of travel ball, and she struggled to keep up because she lacked some foundational skills. After sitting on the bench game after game, Watkins broke down one evening on the car ride home with her mom. "I remember asking her, 'What's wrong?'" Sari says. "And she's like, 'Mom, can you please teach me how to play basketball? Please, Mom, just please can you and Dad teach me what to do?'" That night, Watkins' parents sat down at the kitchen table and came up with a plan for training their daughter.

For the next couple of years, Watkins practiced every day with her parents in the backyard or at the Watts gym named after her great-grandfather, Ted Watkins Sr., a civil rights activist in the 1960s. When her dad got off work, he'd take her to the backyard to shoot jumpers. It started with 100 then 200 then 300 and more. "When we started in the backyard, it was always about the foundation and the repetition," Robert says. "We were always making sure we were adding to her value and her skillset. The one great thing about Juju was whatever we worked on in the backyard, she would implement immediately in the game. She wasn't afraid of taking risks."

When she got to seventh grade, things clicked. The little girl crying in the backseat of her mom's car became a star. "I realized I was good when I was 12," Watkins remembers. "I ended up actually getting ranked for the first time, right when I finished that summer."

At that moment, Watkins knew all those sweaty hours at the gym and in the driveway had meaning. "I don't really know how to explain my talent because I do put in the work, but honestly, I think some things are just God-given talents," Watkins says. "That's when I got serious about the game and my love for the game evolved. It's also when I saw my hard work pay off and saw a glimpse of how far basketball could take me."

As Watkins started to see her own potential, others took notice. Parents, players and coaches all wanted to know the blueprint for Watkins' success. "It's pretty simple," Sari says. "Be consistent in life. We felt honored that people wanted to know how we got her there so quickly, but it was because once she wanted to be serious about it, we just invested so much energy into helping her build that. It was a priority of ours."

In middle school, folks started approaching Watkins after games to say hi and introduce themselves. "It wasn't something that was like, 'Oh my God.' It was just like, 'Oh wow, that's dope that people come up to me and know my name.' I took that as more fuel to just even grow even further and have that impact on people where they're knowing my name and knowing what I do." Her parents focused on staying present and not fixating on the growing buzz surrounding their daughter. "When people started to come up to her, we didn't want to really focus on that because we were looking at it from the perspective on improving her game and making sure she was a good person. The other stuff wasn't on our minds."

After two years of starring at Windward School, a college-preparatory school in Los Angeles, Watkins transferred to Sierra Canyon, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, for her junior year. Since middle school, Watkins had been drawn to Sierra Canyon, and her parents wanted her to find happiness and diversity not just on the court but in the classroom. After applying, Watkins received her acceptance, and Sierra Canyon offered need-based financial aid. Shortly after, the Watkins family moved from their hometown of Watts to a northern Los Angeles suburb closer to the famous campus.

"We were just looking at it from the perspective of, 'What's the best decision for her to be happy?'" Sari says. "And we were hyper-focused on making the right decision for her. For years, she had already had celebrity support and started to build her own brand, so there wasn't really a culture shock. But it was interesting when the first day of school, she came home and said Bronny was in her class or when we found out some of the celebrities' kids that go there. But really for us, it was just about supporting our daughter and making sure she was happy. The other stuff didn't matter."

Once she stepped foot on the Sierra Canyon court, the full "Juju Watkins effect" kicked in.

In December 2021, at the McDonalds Classic in El Paso, Texas, fans filled the stands for Sierra Canyon's opening game against Pebble Hills. They made signs for Watkins. They painted their faces with her number plastered on their cheeks. They yelled cheers and chants for Watkins for the duration of the game. In her Sierra Canyon debut, she had 15 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks in an 87-37 win. After the game, a young girl asked Watkins to take a picture with her. She then showed Watkins that she put it as her screensaver.

A month later, while playing in Alaska, a fan rushed to Watkins after a game and asked her to sign the side of his face with a Sharpie.

"I've been around the top players in the country, and I've never seen anything like it," says Komaki, who has coached at Sierra Canyon for 11 years. "She gets Bronny-type attention. We had to escort her out of arenas because she was getting that mob-like attention, which is super awesome, fantastic. We'll see what happens this year in the places we go and the people we encounter."

For Watkins, it's an "honor" to be able to sign someone's face and be someone's screensaver.

"But I don't know, I feel like I'm still not where I...I just feel like there's so much room for growth. When I look at players like LeBron and Candace Parker, the greats, that's what I aspire to be. This is cool, but I have to get there. I never really try to take things too much into consideration," Watkins says.

SNEAKERS SQUEAK AMID the sound of bouncing balls as Watkins pairs up with Randolph for a first-day-of-practice drill. Randolph dribbles the ball while Watkins plays defense. The goal is to make it to the other sideline without losing possession. Watkins presses Randolph, who dribbles the ball between her legs as Watkins' arms wave in lockstep with her lower body. With every defensive movement from Watkins, Randolph pivots quickly to maneuver her body away and keeps her dribble.

Now, it's Watkins' turn to play offense.

"Ball. Ball. Ball. Ball," Randolph yells. Anything to attempt to throw Watkins off. Watkins goes behind her back, forcing Randolph to retreat. A dribble between her legs, and she's more than halfway across the court. Less than two feet away, a teammate loses possession of her ball. As it rolls over to Watkins, she quickly moves her body to avoid a collision. The entire time, she maintains possession. In 7 seconds, Watkins makes it to the other end.

When they conclude the one-on-one drill, Watkins and Randolph separate and watch their teammates who are still attempting to finish. Randolph powerfully claps her hands and raises her voice to support them. Watkins' eyes intently watch each movement of her teammates, and she echoes Randolph's encouragement.

Throughout the practice, Randolph and Izela Arenas (daughter of three-time NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas) emphatically yell demands like "rebound" and words of encouragement like "Let's go, guys."

Watkins remains in the same place she started: locked in. Her focus never wavering. Her detailed movements never lacking. The only time Watkins raises her voice above the rest is during a drill when a teammate doesn't rebound. "Lock in, bro!" Watkins cries out.

This past summer, NBA star James Harden came to Sierra Canyon to practice with Watkins. During that practice, Watkins observed Harden's habits.

"He is so intellectual in how he plays the game and even practices. He practices like he's in the game," Watkins says. "I knew that I wanted to pick up that habit from him. So now I'm like, 'OK practice like you're in an actual game. Talk to yourself. Get in the rhythm that is able to translate into the game.' And that's no matter what I'm doing in practice."

With 30 minutes of practice left, Sierra Canyon runs its halfcourt offense. Komaki doesn't expect perfection. There are moments when decisions aren't made quickly enough -- and moments when the wrong decision is made too quickly.

Watkins stands at the 3-point line to the right of the basket. She makes shots and passes within the offense's natural flow. Not once does she shoot just to shoot. Her basketball IQ is on full display. Her confidence is on full display.

Then, she misses a 3. A slight head shake, and she's back to it. She knows that she'll miss many more shots this season. How she responds is more important than anything. The next possession, she makes the 3. The next two times she's passed the ball, she doesn't miss. Every time, she pumps her hands as the ball floats through the basket.

"I feel like a lot of people confuse me for this super egotistical person because of what I've already done as a player, and then they meet me and they're like, 'Whoa, you're like this?' Because on the court I get carried away, a little flex here and there. I'm just so locked in. I don't even realize what I'm doing. It's just basketball brings out that confidence in me, fire in me, that I never have off the court," Watkins says. "It's like I'm a whole different person."

WATKINS PULLS HER HAIR into a high bun, laces up her sneakers and heads out the door. She had returned from her final official school visit barely an hour earlier. There's less than two weeks until the early signing period opens, and Watkins knows that it's crunch time.

"I'm a little late to the party," says Watkins, who plans to announce her decision early next week. "I plan on making sure 1,000 percent that this is definitely what I want to do and where I want to go because these are probably going to be the most important years of my life."

It'll take an hour to get to the Lynwood High School gym from her home, and Watkins utilizes the time to get locked in. Right now, the official visits and signing day can wait. It's time to play. Sierra Canyon is still weeks away from its first official game, but they will take on a series of games in the Lynwood Fall Classic against other programs throughout Southern California.

In the first game against Lynwood, Watkins curls up the sideline and takes a shovel pass at the 3-point line. With her defender on her hip, Watkins dribbles once and darts toward the basket. Her defender frantically tries to get between Watkins and the hoop. Watkins dribbles again, hopping away from the basket and beyond the arc. Her defender's left foot slides, and her right hand touches the court as she tries to maintain her balance.

It's too late.

The crowd gasps as Watkins elevates and lets fly, her right hand freezing in a perfect goose neck. The ball spins, glances off the rim and drops through the bottom of the hoop. Watkins turns, gives a little shimmy with her arms, and runs back to play defense. Her face lights up with a smile.

The upcoming season will be about running back a championship for Sierra Canyon, but it's also about Watkins' senior-year tour. It's about where the best player in the country will take her talents for college. And it's about just how big of an impact the Watts native can have on the women's game.

"This year, I really want to leave my mark on the Sierra Canyon basketball program and the world," Watkins says. "Just close it out so strong that completely ties my story together. A lot of people have told me this is unrealistic, but I want to have an undefeated year and I want to average a triple double.

"What do they say? Aim for the stars land on the moon? That's what I plan on doing."