November 23, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Players weren’t scoring. They weren’t even shooting. They were over-passing – deferring instead of attacking, thinking instead of reacting.
Brea Olinda High School girl’s basketball coach Jeff Sink, pacing the gym’s green sidelines, saw too many missed opportunities, and as a result, too many turnovers. He stopped practice.
“Will you even look at the basket? Shoot the … ball!” Sink said, before giving one more chance. “We need a bucket inside,” he said. “Right now.”
Something clicked for Tyiona Watkins. Though the 5-foot-11 junior known as “TT” dropped 22 points in the Division I state finals to lead Brea to its 10th state championship last season, she was as guilty as anyone of deferring.
Not this time.
Watkins, sprained thumb and all, demanded the ball in the post. Though her teammate shot a three-pointer instead, Watkins tracked the ball, and, when it rattled out of the rim, yanked it out of the air and put in the layup – saving her team from running suicide sprints.
“She shows flashes of the ability to just completely dominate a game,” Sink said.
“Her humility is her strength and ironically her weakness,” Sink said. “Sometimes, that humility though, gets in the way of her stepping up and she’ll wait too long in a game before she realizes, ‘Whoa, I am the only option.’”
“I hope this year she recognizes when, in fact, it’s T-Time, as we call it,” Sink said, “that she must take over.”
Watkins, who scores from the inside and outside, who blocks shots into the stands, who guards multiple positions, can no longer rely on last year’s star, Reili Richardson, who is now playing at Arizona State.
Sink likened Watkins to Russell Westbrook, in the sense that he must now morph into the go-to-player of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors.
Like Westbrook, Watkins has all of the gifts – the athleticism, smarts, speed, skill, energy and grace – waiting to be unwrapped.
Watkins will likely face more double teams, but she’s up for the challenge.
“I have to step up,” Watkins said. “It’s kind of scary taking responsibility, but I need to take this team where they want to be. We want to repeat.”
Watkins has long ‘Wow’d’ coaches with her potential. The first time Sink saw Watkins, then a seventh-grader competing in a high-school summer league, she snatched a rebound, pushed the ball up full court and drained a mid-range pull-up shot at the free-throw line.
“Like a guy’s jumpshot,” Sink said. “Major hops.”
Watkins, who is receiving recruiting interest from major Division I colleges, comes from a line of athletes. Her mother ran track and played basketball in high school, receiving a full scholarship to Western Kentucky University for track.
Watkins’ grandmother, Dr. Gayle Harris Watkins, was a world-class hurdler, competing in the 1980, 1984, and 1988 Olympic trials. She was ranked No. 1 on the USA list for long jump in ‘81. She was second on the world list for 50-meter hurdles in ‘86.
“I always tell her: ‘I want to be just like you,’” Watkins said of her grandmother.
But her grandmother always replied: Tyiona, you are destined to do great things, as Watkins’ middle name is “Destiny.”
Growing up, Watkins and her step-father, Charles, would mark spots on their driveway at each of the game’s five positions with duct tape. They’d diagram plays, as Watkins learned how to attack from each spot, resisting falling into neat categories of either being a guard or a post.
She understood the game on a deeper level.
“You can draw up a play and she’ll know it,” said her mother, Tanyita Watkins. “She watches basketball all day. She’ll sit there and say, ‘Oh they’re running this. Or, that player’s going to do this.’ She really understands the game.”
Watkins studied Richardson at Brea, amazed at the way the upperclassman never took a play off. Watkins said she realized that being a leader is more than scoring all the points – it’s about working the hardest, wanting the ball when the shot clock is dwindling.
Still, Watkins deferred. This is your team, she’d tell Richardson. But Richardson pushed back.
“It’s funny, her freshmen year I had to tell her to take some shots she passed up,” Richardson said. “I knew by the end of freshmen year what she was capable of being. She’s a phenomenal player.”
Last season, Watkins broke through against Serra (Gardena), scoring 28 points. Other standout performances include scoring 20 points against El Camino and 16 points against Windward at the Nike Tournament of Champions.
This season, Watkins is speaking up more – not just on the court, but in the classroom.
She said she used to be terrified of class presentations, like the one in honors literature last year. Students weren’t allowed to use note cards. Watkins had a breakdown.
But by the end of the year, she delivered a presentation on drug abuse in sports – without note cards or tears. She realized she could thrive in that setting.
“Slowly but surely she’s breaking out of her shell,” her mother said. “TT hasn’t shown what she’s made of yet. I’m ready for her to breakout. It’s in her.”
Back at Brea’s practice, the team worked on half-court offense. Watkins fought hard for position down low, stretching her arms out, motioning for the ball.
But this time, she opened her mouth and told her teammate at the top of the key to swing the ball to the wing, so she could post up again in order to get a better angle to the basket.
Following her lead, Watkins’ teammates passed the ball around and fed her inside. She caught the ball, spun hard toward the baseline and kissed the ball off the glass for an easy bucket.
“I’m very determined, since everyone’s really keying in on me now,” Watkins said. “It’s time for me to go to work.”