Do-everything Forbes ready to guide USC into the NCAA Tournament

McKenzie Forbes has a word with JuJu Watkins, as Taylor Bigby runs by. USC Athletics photo.

Things weren’t going too well for USC in their first matchup against UCLA in December. The top 10 rivalry game was physical, the Trojans were trailing, and emotions were running high when center Clarice Akunwafo was called for a foul. Incensed, she yelled in frustration.

With a few quick steps, McKenzie Forbes was in front of her teammate looking up, and into her eyes.

“You’re fine,” the graduate senior forward told her with emphasis.

As Forbes continued talking, Akunwafo’s shoulders relaxed, and tension on the court evaporated.

In any game, Forbes has numerous such stops. She may coach up her teammates; she will give props or pointers to the underclassmen, including freshman phenom JuJu Watkins. Forbes also takes the initiative to ask coach Lindsay Gottlieb what changes she might want to see.

These qualities, as well as Forbes’ ability to fill up the stat sheet, have been one of the reasons USC quickly elevated from an unranked position to begin the season, to the top 10, her coach said.

“She can play the 3 or the 4, she knows everyone’s spot, she’s super-confident,” Gottlieb said. “She’s mature….she has a really good way with her teammates, and she’s a good coach on the floor. McKenzie is very much the glue of our team.”

Forbes’ contributions also stem from the stat sheet, where she is the team’s second-leading scorer and assists-giver, at 13.4 points and 3.2 dimes per game, respectively. She grabs 3.1 rebounds per outing, is shooting 39 percent on the year, and has started all 24 contests.

“With all the things she does for us, it’s hard to take her off the floor,” Gottlieb said.

Fellow grad transfer and sharp-shooting guard Kayla Padilla said Forbes is “a pure leader,” adding that calling her a coach on the floor is “an understatement.”

“She knows every single position for (all on) every single play…she’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever met,” Padilla said. “But those abilities include bringing people together. She’s not afraid to hold you accountable, and she gives it her all. She’s the ultimate, quintessential teammate that you want standing next to you when you’re going to battle.”

Forbes came to Troy knowing she’d play with No. 1 recruit Watkins, who to date has scored at least 30 points in 10 games, bettering Cheryl Miller’s 37-year-old single-season record. Gottlieb said she didn’t foresee the effect Forbes would have on the young prodigy.

“I didn’t predict it, how good and supportive she is of JuJu,” Gottlieb said. “(Forbes is) a kid who is over her own self, who is mature enough to know she is witnessing greatness from (Watkins). And she is always figuring ‘How can I support her? How can I help make her better?’”

Padilla said Forbes’ influence on Watkins has been meaningful.

“I can tell JuJu really looks up to Kenzie, and a lot of it is how she leads by example on the court,” Padilla said. “They have a lot of conversations and are great friends off the court. But I think for JuJu to see someone who is so smart with the basketball….when she gets that, in addition to her IQ….she’s going to be unstoppable.”

USC Athletics photo.

Being an exceptional teammate aside, Forbes’ greatest value might be not only her cool head in tense game situations, but her ability to capitalize on opportunities.

In Sunday’s game against then-No. 11 Oregon State, Watkins found herself limited by the Beaver defense. In the second half Forbes took advantage of being open and exploded for 13 points, while also creating opportunities for her teammates.

At 20-4 now, Forbes and the No. 7 Trojans are eyeing the postseason.

“It’s a possibility that both Southern California teams could host in the first round (of the NCAA Tournament),” Gottlieb said in a recent press conference.

She knew what she was looking for last spring when she tried to recruit Forbes for the second time. At Cal, where Gottlieb coached from 2011-2019, she left after Forbes’ freshman year there to take an assistant coaching job in the NBA. Forbes elected to transfer to Harvard, and the two stayed in contact. Gottlieb took the Trojan head coaching job in 2021, and last season guided the team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years.

Forbes got an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID pandemic, but Ivy League rules entailed she transfer. Gottlieb hit her up early.

“I didn’t want it to be a sales pitch…..I care about her so much,” Gottlieb said. “I told her, ‘We’re doing something special here, and we could use you. When you’re ready to talk about it, let me know.’”

When Forbes did call they talked for a long time, and in the end, the California native made the decision to come back to her home state..

“The biggest thing for me was knowing Lindsay for so long, and feeling empowered to lead,” Forbes said. “Lindsay really knows my game.”

And that approach to playing, according to her coach, is an experienced one.

“We joke that she has an old man’s game,” Gottlieb said. “She lets the game come to her, she can cross you over, and she is confident in her own shot. She sees when the ball needs to come to somebody else.”

“She really understands basketball.”

Given what her older brother Mason calls “the Forbes family lore,” this is no surprise.

Both father Sterling Forbes Jr. and grandfather Sterling Forbes Sr. played professional basketball, and each played for the Harlem Globetrotters. When Mason was 3 and McKenzie, 2, their father opened a basketball training facility in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento, and the family moved there from Southern California.

Though she was literally raised in the gym, Forbes said she never felt pressure to take up basketball.

“I definitely picked up a ball when I could barely walk, but I was very much allowed to explore sports,” she said. “I did gravitate towards basketball…..my dad had basketball camps in the summer, and I had three older brothers who played, and I wanted to do what they were doing. But I never felt like Dad wanted us to work out. He let us find our own love for it, and I appreciate that.”

Mason said his sister, as a third-grader, played on his fourth-grade team. She held her own.

“She was a bruiser,” he said. “She definitely had a competitive edge.”

At Folsom High School, where her father was an assistant coach, Forbes starred for four years, and was named a McDonald’s All-American as a senior.

When Forbes decided to leave the Cal Bears, she joined Mason at Harvard – an easy call, as the two had always been close.

“We had a great experience at Harvard, and I’m incredibly grateful for that,” Mason said. “She lived with me and three of the other men’s basketball players in the dorm together. We had classes together during the COVID year, and in person. We had a lot of the same friends.”

USC Athletics photo.

But that time was not without its challenges for Forbes, who had to sit out 2019-2020 due to transfer rules, which at that time entailed waiting a year to play. The following season, amidst the pandemic, the Ivy League canceled play.

“It was definitely mentally challenging,” Forbes said of the long wait to get back on the court. “I especially remember sitting at home watching games (in 2020-2021) and March Madness, because I’d got a taste of it at Cal. Seeing people I played with in high school on the big stage was really tough.”

“I was also going through an injury. I ended up coaching seventh- and eighth-grade girls AAU. It was an elite team. We were in the Mamba Tournament series, because those girls were the same age as Gigi Bryant’s team. We were actually at the Mamba Tournament the day of the (fatal helicopter) crash (that killed Kobe and Gigi Bryant). That was insane.”

By the time she suited up for the Crimson and white, the coaching bug had bitten Forbes. She played for Kathy Delaney-Smith in her last year, and then for Carrie Moore in her first at Harvard. Forbes said she learned a lot from both of them. Her brother said he always saw a coach in her.

“She was always grabbing our Dad’s clipboard and drawing up plays,” Mason said of their younger years. “We used to play 2 on 2, with her and our oldest brother against me and our other brother. They always had plays; we didn’t have plays.”

Forbes said that when she got to USC last summer, she could see that the team had a lot of talent.

“We have centers with different skill sets…we have rim protection and scoring at the wing,” she said. “Kayla Padilla is a shooting guard that morphed into a point guard, and with JuJu and I as the secondary ball handlers, it helped the court dynamic in a lot of ways.”

Forbes said that with a team full of newcomers, including three grad transfers, she worried about on and off-court chemistry. But as it turns out, she didn’t need to be concerned.

“My teammates have been incredible. It’s a really good group,” Forbes said. “We don’t have locker room issues, we don’t have any knuckleheads. It’s been super-fun to take on this leadership role, and I want to give everything I can to this team. We have a really incredible group.”

Mason, who is a senior forward at Saint Mary’s, said the end to his sister’s college journey is shaping up to be exceptional.

“She felt immediately that they had a special group, and an opportunity to do something great. It’s been awesome to see how that’s unfolded,” he said. “She’s put in a lot of hard work, and it’s hard to do what she’s done as a transfer, and make an impact in one year. I’m excited for the rest of the season.”

At the same time, Forbes is also gearing for the WNBA draft, by working with new assistant coach Chris Koclanes, who came to Troy after eight years as an assistant in the league.

“I’ve been watching a lot of film with him – he’s incredibly insightful,” Forbes said. “We’ve been watching WNBA clips. Like he’ll have film on screens, and say, ‘let’s see who slips the best screens in the league.'”

After her professional career, whether in the WNBA, overseas or both, Forbes plans on coaching at the professional level. Ultimately, she would love to work in an executive function in the NBA.

“I don’t think I’ll ever lose my competitive gene,” she said.

If there’s on person who is confident in Forbes’ future success, it is her coach.

“She could be an NBA GM, a WNBA GM, she can coach. She can do whatever she wants, and she’ll do it well,” Gottlieb said.

USC’s final home games are this weekend, as they host Colorado and Utah.