Caitlin Clark & JuJu Watkins

Could trail-blazing Caitlin Clark be a mentor for USC’s JuJu Watkins?

Clark and the Indiana Fever practiced at USC on Thursday before Friday’s game against the Sparks, and Trojans head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was ‘blown away’ by the WNBA rookie’s poise

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark and USC star JuJu Watkins are different kinds of players, but they’re “similarly magnetic,” as USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb put it. Both have helped elevate the audience around women’s basketball to never-before-seen-levels. (Photos by AP and Getty Images)

Luca Evans (OC Register)  —  LOS ANGELES — In late April, Lindsay Gottlieb met Caitlin Clark for the first time, the next face of the WNBA humbly passing her collegiate crown to Gottlieb’s 18-year-old USC freshman.

They ran into one another at the Wooden Awards at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, JuJu Watkins a finalist for the Wooden Award trophy that Clark eventually took home. It was brief, Gottlieb remembered, Clark telling Watkins and Gottlieb she wished she and Iowa had the chance to play USC in the NCAA Tournament.

But Clark’s poise in speaking with Watkins stayed with Gottlieb long after that meeting, a star weightless despite carrying a movement on her shoulders, as USC’s head coach reflects on how to best mentor a player who could soon reach the celebrity Clark has tapped.

“She was like, ‘I had this attention for a year and a half, two years,’” Gottlieb said, remembering Clark’s words to Watkins.

“She said to JuJu, ‘You’re going to have it for the next three.’”

When Gottlieb met Clark for the second time on Thursday, the Indiana Fever coming to practice at USC’s Galen Center before Friday night’s much-anticipated matchup with the Sparks, an entire world had shifted in less than a month. Clark is a rookie now, still searching for her first WNBA win after five games, trying to adjust to the physicality of pro basketball while enduring the same expectations she shouldered at the college level. Embroiled in a storm of discourse around financial growth and charter flights, Clark blinked blearily during post-practice interviews Thursday, users on Twitter pointing out how brutally tired she looked.

But as Gottlieb and young son Jordan – a budding women’s hoops superfan – lingered on the sidelines Thursday, Clark waved them over to chop it up, in another interaction that simply floored Gottlieb.

“I’ve still never seen anything like this, where one player, five games into their rookie season, is from all angles getting every kind of attention,” Gottlieb told the Southern California News Group on Friday. “And that’s why I think I was so, just, blown away by her. Like, there was not one fake thing about her interaction with us.”

Clark and Watkins, by nature, are wholly different players, as Gottlieb noted. But they’re “similarly magnetic,” as Gottlieb put it. Both continued to elevate the audience around women’s basketball to never-before-seen-levels in 2023-24, Watkins just slightly further behind Clark, arguably the two most captivating scorers in college basketball. Both, too, were constantly aware of their influence, inspiring a new generation of young fans – particularly young women – amid swarms of autographs and media attention.

And with Clark gone to the WNBA, Watkins’ profile will only compound, particularly as USC readies to play its games on the Big Ten Network. At the past week’s Big Ten meetings, Gottlieb said, FOX executives in the room told her that the network’s coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 21 would lead directly into USC-UConn – a time slot another network might normally reserve for a program like “60 Minutes.”

“For JuJu, there’s not that many people who probably understand what her life might be like,” Gottlieb reflected Friday. “And Caitlin’s one of them.”

Gottlieb is often labeled a basketball junkie, a veteran of both the women’s college ranks and the NBA who once spent a rare off day during her time at Cal heading to a Golden State Warriors practice to try to soak in some insight. As much as watching film, though, she’s placing a major emphasis on trying to surround herself with voices who can help advise her in best advising Watkins, through future years rising to a level in the college game that few have attained.

And on Thursday, without prompting, Clark took Gottlieb’s phone and entered herself into the coach’s contacts.

“I’m certainly going to utilize that as a resource, if she’s this willing,” Gottlieb said. “I think that’s just a neat thing. And I do think it’s really cool on her part to be willing to pay it forward, so to speak, and help someone else.”

ocregister.com

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TrojanRon
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TrojanRon
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May 26, 2024 2:45 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Too bad USC could not hold on. 50 years ago, USC pulled off an absolute miracle in the NCAA title game vs Minnesota. Dave Winfield was pitching for the Gophers and they had an 8-0 lead going into the late innings. Winfield was pulled and USC scored 9 runs to win the game. It was my Freshman year at USC and we had the great Fred Lynn in center, Anthony Davis in right, Steve Kemp in left, Roy Smalley at short and Rich Dauer at second. My fellow Freshman Rob Hertel played third. He redshirted a year in football and… Read more »