It’s gotta be the shoes.
JuJu Watkins poured in a USC record 51 points against Stanford, torching the Pac-12 leaders with a dizzying array of stepbacks, crossovers and silky jumpers and dancing with defenders in her Kobe “Mambacita” sneakers. The black snakeskin-patterned shoes honor not only late Lakers star Kobe Bryant, but also his daughter Gianna, with her AAU jersey No. 2 on the side of each shoe.
“Kobe is L.A.,” Watkins said after practice Wednesday with the sneakers untied and strewn on the floor at her feet. “I’m always just in constant awe of him and his legacy, and of course Gigi, too. [I’m] just always making sure I have that type of mindset and trying to adopt more of that Mamba mentality every time I step on the court.”
Watkins’ mentality is only beginning to take over the city like the legends before her. On the weekend before Bryant’s statue was set to be unveiled at Crypto.com Arena, Watkins made history for USC as the Trojans secured their first Bay Area road sweep since 2001. Watkins, who followed up her historic performance at Stanford with a team-high 29 points and five assists against California last Sunday, wasn’t even born the last time USC pulled off the rare sweep.
Buoyed by the monumental weekend, the No. 10 Trojans (16-4, 6-4 Pac-12) hope to maintain their momentum against Arizona State (10-12, 2-8 Pac-12) on Friday at 7 p.m. at Galen Center.
It wasn’t just Watkins’ eye-popping scoring total that impressed USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb most. It was the way the performance came right after one of the freshman’s most disappointing games of the season: an eight-for-27 slog for 19 points against Washington. The Trojans lost, 62-59, at home.
That night, Watkins stayed in the gym so late that a security guard called Gottlieb to ask if the 18-year-old should be kicked out.
“Let Ju be Ju,” Gottlieb responded.
“Ju” is a relentless worker, said guard India Otto, who first crossed paths with the phenom when Watkins was a seventh-grader at Windward School. Watkins is detail-oriented. A perfectionist who doesn’t stop until she gets it right.
After a five-for-31 shooting slump from three-point range in five games before Stanford, Watkins had plenty to work on in the gym, she admitted.
Then she swished her first three against the Cardinal. By halftime, she had 25 points. Her teammates knew it was Watkins’ night.
“Just insane. It was insane,” Otto said. “She has such a level of focus and that Mamba mentality she brings to every game, but you could just see she was extra, extra dialed in.”
If there’s anyone on the team who would know Bryant’s mentality, it’s Otto. The sharp-shooting walk-on met Bryant through her father, Rick Otto, when she was 10 and the families have remained close. India worked out with Bryant and, four years ago, changed her jersey number from 30 to 2 to honor Gianna.
The Bryant family is one of the most prominent supporters of the program. Vanessa Bryant selected USC as one of six “Mamba schools” that are wearing Kobe sneakers this season. The Trojans each received three USC player exclusive Kobe sneakers in December. Oldest daughter Natalia is a student at USC, and her younger sisters watched a game this season in the front row at Galen Center with their mother.
There could be more star power flocking to watch the JuJu show soon. Gottlieb heard Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards wanted to catch a glimpse of the freshman sensation. Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff texted Gottlieb, a former Cavaliers assistant, in disbelief: “50-ball?”
Watkins won social media over the weekend, getting mentions from Kevin Durant, LeBron James and A’ja Wilson. Sparks forward Dearica Hamby jokingly asked on Twitter what the WNBA’s tanking rules were.
Watkins demurs at the attention. On Wednesday, she referred to her masterpiece against Stanford as simply “such a good night.” She cracked a smile, recognizing the enormity of her understatement. She’s still got plenty to learn about this level, she insists.
“Learning that you’re not going to be on every day,” Watkins said of her biggest lesson 19 games into her college career. “You practice every day, knowing that your shot is off or things are not going your way, there’s always another day to it. I think that’s most important, and it’s helped me a lot [to] just pace myself.”
The JuJu hype is at an all-time high and with a month before the postseason, it will only grow. Watkins’ star power is unprecedented for the program in this social media era, so before the season, Gottlieb said she wanted to ensure Watkins could feel comfortable being a typical college freshman.
Watkins was the subject of sports TV debates this week. She was on the cover of Slam Magazine. But Gottlieb’s weekend highlight came during a rainstorm Sunday night. It was watching Watkins, holding the Trojan sword, dancing to the sounds of the USC marching band. It was the smiles on all their faces.
“To me,” Gottlieb said, “that’s what’s the fun of it.”