This year’s freshman class has surprised many by how quickly they have adjusted to the collegiate game, with record-breaking, dominant performances from the first bounce of the ball three weeks ago. Five athletes, in particular, have not only shone brightly, but they have lead their team to strong season starts. We take a look:
JuJu Watkins, USC
Juju Watkins came in the college basketball season as the No.1 player in the 2023 class, and so far, she has lived up to that standard. As a senior at Sierra Canyon High School, the guard averaged 27.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, leading her team to the CIF Southern Section Open Division title. She did a little of everything at the high school level.
To start the season with the Trojans, who were unranked at the time, Watkins burst onto the scene with a 32-point game against then-No. 7 Ohio State, which USC won 84-74. A week later she scored 35 points against Le Monye. So far she is averaging 26.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and three assists per contest. Watkins is playing efficiently, shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point land.
Though a newcomer, Watkins is the Trojans’ go-to player and No.1 scorer. She is multi-skilled and can score from anywhere on the floor, which makes her unique. USC is off to a 5-0 start this season and is currently ranked No. 6 – their highest in the top 25 since 1994. As Watkins has on-court poise and maturity beyond her years, the Trojans could surprise many people come tournament time.
MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina
Coming into the season, MiLaysia Fulwiley was a relative unknown. But the South Carolina guard wasted no time stepping into the spotlight on the first day of the season, finishing the day with 17 points, six assists and six steals. Her sometimes-improbable drives to the basket were not only fun to watch, but jaw-dropping, and drew attention from NBA legend Magic Johnson, among many others.
Fulwiley is an athletic player who likes to push the tempo, get her teammates involved and hit shots from the outside. So far this season, she is averaging 15 points, four rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. At Keenan High School, Fulwiley averaged 24.8 points, seven rebounds, and six assists per game.
Besides her offensive acumen, Fulwiley is also a great defender, and is a perfect fit for the Gamecocks. She also fills a void at the point that has been empty since Destanni Henderson’s graduation in 2022.
Fulwiley is one of the reasons that South Carolina is back in the No. 1 spot, after starting the season ranked 6th. The future for both player and team is bright.
Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame
Notre Dame began its season in Paris, where they squared off on the first day against South Carolina. Though the Irish lost, 71-100, guard Hannah Hidalgo stole the show with a dominating 31-point performance that brought the No. 5 recruit to everyone’s attention. She is currently the third-best scorer in the nation – just behind Watkins – averaging 25 points per game.
At 5-6, Hidalgo is hard to guard because she is quick, and can dribble. For her size, she does a great job finishing in the paint and getting to the foul line, where she averages 6.4 free throws per game. She also causes havoc on defense, and is good at creating ball pressure and getting steals. So far this season, Hidalgo has also averaged five rebounds, five assists, and 6.3 steals per game.
In New Jersey, she played basketball for Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, where her father, Orlando, coached her. As a senior, she averaged 28.8 points, 7.3 steals, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game, leading her team to the South Jersey Non-Public A final.
It will be interesting to see if Hidalgo can keep up this outstanding play. If super-guard Olivia Miles can get back on the floor after a knee injury, the Irish backcourt could be scary.
Mikaylah Williams, LSU
Mikayla Williams has a talented team, but she is making a name for herself with her standout play. After scoring nine points in her first game, she put up 20 against Mississippi Valley State, and followed up with a career-high 42 points against Kent State.
To say the least, it’s impressive for a freshman to score 42 points on a team featuring Angel Reese, Hailey Van Lith, Aneesah Morrow, and Flau’jae Johnson. She is helping to keep the Tigers rolling when they began the season with a loss, and have now seen Reese miss three straight games. Williams’s ability to be aggressive, and coach Kim Mulkey’s faith in her ability to make shots, is apparent.
Williams, a guard, compiled 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game in high school, and was named Louisiana Player of the Year. So far this season, Williams leads LSU in scoring with 17.5 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, and 55.9 percent from beyond the arc.
If and when Reese comes back, and once the Tigers get used to playing with each other, Williams’ minutes and points per game may each dip slightly. But she has shown her ability to get her shots up. If one of the star players has an off night, Williams can step up and fill the void.
And with enough work, she may become the next LSU star.
Nunu Agara, Stanford
Forward Nunu Agara opened her Stanford career with an 18-point, six-rebounds game against Hawaii, and followed that up with a 13-point, four-rebound game against Indiana. With her help, the Cardinal have gone from a No. 15 ranking preseason to the No. 3 spot this week, with a 7-0 record.
With other talented players on the Cardinal roster, Agara won’t be asked to score points every night, but they will need her physical play and energy. As the season goes on, she could gain a more significant role, as Tara VanDerveer-coached reserve players seem to do.