“The Three Nerds” — JuJu’s Grad Transfer Weapons

JuJu Watkins’ smart, experienced supporting cast has stepped up huge for USC

A stroke of brilliance to surround the freshman phenom with the trio of Kayla Padilla, Kaitlyn Davis and McKenzie Forbes – hungry, astute Ivy League grad transfers who have helped Watkins learn the ropes

From left, USC women’s basketball players Kayla Padilla, Kaitlyn Davis and McKenzie Forbes – three graduate transfers from the Ivy League – have helped JuJu Watkins, not pictured, establish the Trojans as a top five team in the nation as they head into the Pac-12 tournament. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
From left, Lady Trojans Kayla Padilla, Kaitlyn Davis and McKenzie Forbes – three graduate transfers from the Ivy League – have teamed with frosh sensation JuJu Watkins to establish the Trojans as a top-five team in the nation heading into the Pac-12 tournament. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Mirjam Swanson (OC Register)  —  So I went to a recent practice for a behind-the-scenes look at the players starring alongside freshman sensation JuJu Watkins for the fifth-ranked Trojans – whose season continues Thursday night at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, where second-seeded USC will face the winner of Arizona and Washington’s first-round tussle.

“Nerds” is Coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s endearing term to describe her trio of Ivy League graduate transfers: Kaitlyn Davis, McKenzie Forbes and Kayla Padilla, high-IQ hoopers with degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Penn, respectively. Gottlieb gets away with calling them that, ’cause she’s one of them, a former baller at Brown.

You can find interviews of Davis – the 6-foot forward from Connecticut who recorded the first triple-double in Lions’ history – talking about having an affinity for art and music. But the nerdy thing about her, she tells the newspaper lady: “I read the news a lot. Like, a lot. A lot. Washington Post, New York Times. I don’t know what be on Instagram, but I know what’s in the news.”

And then there’s Padilla, the high-volume scoring guard-turned-defensive stopper from Torrance, a 5-9 Excel spreadsheet whiz, writer and publisher whose Covid projects included starting her own Players Tribune-esque site for collegians (check out “The Sideline Post”) and adding drums to the array of instruments she plays. She loves her some Bruce Springsteen.

She’s sharp, this shooter Padilla, who has buried 45.7% of her 3-point attempts this season, including so many that were so timely that, to Watkins, it feels like she hits at a “90%” success rate.

And Forbes, the 6-foot forward from Folsom whose future – whenever she’s done hooping – likely is in an NBA front office. She’s got no time for discovering music or catching up on shows, really, because she’s too busy “nerding out” on basketball. Binging podcasts, watching games, studying the sport. (And absorbing what’s happening in the real world, too.)


It was a stroke of brilliance, bringing aboard these three.

Think about it: If you want to set up Watkins to succeed in Year One, before a starry freshman recruiting class files in next season, what’s the prudent move?

Surround her with savvy veterans. Cast teammates with impressive on-court acumen and important off-court life experience, women who can organize an offense so the freshman doesn’t have to, or offer tips about, say, attacking an opponent who’s in foul trouble – who are wise enough to recognize what’s needed of them, to embrace the opportunity.

And, importantly, who can play.

And Davis, Forbes and Padilla? They can play. Maybe you wouldn’t expect it from Ivy Leaguers who are mostly overlooked nationally, but maybe you should. These are three who chose the hard way, workers who signed up for the most rigorous of college experiences, to be ballplayers at elite universities where the main thing is the main thing – and it ain’t athletics.

They’re proud of that. Darn right.“

The resources are so vastly different from here to there,” said Forbes, an All-Pac-12 selection who dropped 36 points on Long Beach State this season, and 23 and 18 on UCLA. “There was a thing at Harvard, ‘Oh, we’re giving snacks now to our athletes!’ And I remember, you could only have, literally, one granola bar. We’d be like, ‘Can we have two?’ No. Here you have a whole room you walk in and I could take 20 every day, if I wanted.”

Not that any of the three would’ve wanted a different path, mind you: “There’s no me here without me at Penn,” is how Padilla, once a Bishop Montgomery star and 2019 Daily Breeze Girls Basketball Player of the Year, put it.

“It’s just,” Davis said, “you appreciate it more.”

And so, weird as it still might be for their former teammates to see, there they are – KP, KD and Kenzie – united on the same side, starting alongside Watkins and standout center Rayah Marshall. Foes turned friends, members now of the same basketball family.

Utterly familiar with one another’s games, they’re all three hungry for more than granola bars – because they’ve spent the past few years knocking each another out of NCAA Tournament consideration, watching bitterly as Princeton got to go dancing season after season.

And, oh, how they’d relish a date with the Tigers now, Padilla asking the tournament selection committee for a favor:

“Put us against Princeton.”Davis, co-signing: “Literally.”And Forbes, for the record: “Put it in the tabloids: We want Princeton.”

Gottlieb isn’t quite so gung-ho when she hears about their joint request: “That would be a fun story, but I don’t necessarily want Princeton; they’re good!”

Whomever USC draws, they’ll have to do more than scheme for Watkins. Because she has her friends with her, keeping opponents honest.

“I just have so much trust in them as leaders and as players,” said Watkins, named the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year on Tuesday. “I’m gonna cry when they leave, honestly. They’re all I can ask for in leaders. They’ve taught me so much and they’re just my dawgs.”

As well as it’s worked out, Gottlieb said it wasn’t necessarily the plan to bring in Ivy Leaguers to play with Watkins, it’s just so happened that she wound up bringing in three Ivy Leaguers.

The right three Ivy Leaguers  — McKenzie Forbes, Kaitlyn Davis and Kayla Padilla.

USC Women's Basketball team members McKenzie Forbes, Kayla Padilla and Kaitlyn Davis at USC's Galen Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)



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Genius Member
March 6, 2024 5:02 pm

Great article and kudos to Coach for getting in on a probably untapped resource of quality players and obviously, people.

Genius Member
March 8, 2024 4:24 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Seems like what we used to call and “endless do-loop” in computer programming. The Heisman Trust is waiting on the NCAA and the NCAA considers its decision final. The latest publicity stunt where Johnny Manziel says he will boycott the Heisman ceremony until Bush’s trophy is given back seems comical to me. IMHO, Manziel is just trying to draw attention to himself. Until Bush publicly apologizes to his teammates, coaches, the USC alumni and fans, for what he and his family did breaking the rules that existed two decades ago, I really don’t care if Bush gets the trophy back.… Read more »

Genius Member
March 6, 2024 8:09 am

This is an outstanding article! Interesting insights into the SC woman’s BB program and the new coach. You have to love this program and what they have done to max JuJu’s performance. Thanks for this!

Noble Genius
March 6, 2024 11:02 am
Reply to  Tirebitter

Wonder if Coach Gottieb is scanning more Grad Ivy Leaguers for next season? Very good article and really rooting for Lady Trojans to go far into the NCAAs.

Noble Genius
March 6, 2024 6:42 am

Can Ms. Gottlieb coach the men’s team? I think that would be an upgrade!