Ranking women's college basketball's top five freshmen: JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo lead transcendent class



Women’s college basketball has plenty of stars right now, but the freshmen have not taken a back seat. As the regular season wraps up, it’s time to take a look at the rising stars who will make an impact in March and well beyond.

From the moment the 2023-24 campaign tipped off, several first-year players started making names for themselves. In fact, this could be considered one of the best freshmen classes in women’s college basketball history.

The only freshman to ever win AP Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year was UConn’s Paige Bueckers in 2021. She averaged 20.0 points, 5.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game while guiding her team to a 28-2 record and a Final Four appearance. This season, multiple freshmen have matched those stats while having significant impacts on their respective teams, pushing women’s basketball forward with their own unique skills.

This freshmen class has no shortage of talent, so we took on the difficult task of ranking the top five first-year players from the 2023-24 women’s college basketball season. 

1. JuJu Watkins, USC

USC was a team that snuck up on its opponents last season, but now Watkins has the Trojans firmly on the map. She has been one of the — if not the — most impressive Pac-12 players this season. Watkins is the nation’s second-leading scorer at nearly 27 points per game, just behind Iowa star Caitlin Clark, who has the most points in D-I women’s basketball history

A 6-foot-2 guard, Watkins is as smooth and consistent as they come. She has scored in double figures every game this season, including 12 games with 30+ points — which surpassed USC legend Cheryl Miller’s single-season record of 10 in 1984-85. Watkins’ most impressive performance so far was a 51-point game that lifted USC to a 67-58 win over Stanford on Feb. 2.

“Extremely poised, very smooth, very little wasted motion. The sky’s the limit,” Miller said of Watkins, per the Associated Press. “I really, really like her temperament and how she’s handled everything. The game isn’t too big for her. She’s very comfortable in her skin.”

Watkins came to USC the same year as Bronny James, son of NBA star LeBron James. Considering James’ arrival, hype around the men’s program skyrocketed before the season — but the women’s team has thrived while the men’s squad has struggled, transferring the L.A. spotlight to Watkins and Co. 

“She’s the next greatest thing in women’s basketball,” LeBron James told the Los Angeles Times.

2. Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame

The nation’s third-leading scorer at 23.7 points per game, Hidalgo is a dynamic player whose game and basketball IQ are already so well-rounded and mature for a freshman. Hidalgo’s offensive acumen is impressive on its own, but her skillset doesn’t stop there. The 5-foot-6 guard also has opponents on high alert defensively as she leads all of college basketball in steals with 4.89 per game.

“She’s like Michael Jordan,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey told Yahoo Sports. “He loved defense. He was defensive and offensive player of the year. So, when you actually have the will and the desire to play defense, it’s a much different sort of competitive nature.”

Hidalgo almost had a quadruple-double on Dec. 17 with 23 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and seven steals. Against Western Michigan her next time out, she registered her first career triple-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, sprinkling in six assists as well.

It’s easy to forget the Fighting Irish have struggled with injuries this season because they’ve still been extremely competitive, and Hidalgo is largely the reason why. 

3. MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina

There was no way the “human highlight reel” wouldn’t make this list. Before the season started, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley told CBS Sports “MiLaysia is a generational talent and [is] doing things I haven’t seen a female do.” It turns out Staley wasn’t exaggerating. 

Fulwiley made a strong introduction to the college basketball world in the Gamecocks’ season-opening 100-71 victory over Notre Dame. She registered 17 points, six assists, one block and a whopping six steals against the Fighting Irish, capturing the attention of Magic Johnson, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.  

Women’s basketball is typically known for having a more fundamentally sound style than the often “flashy” men’s game. Fulwiley is a walking contradiction in that respect, as her thrilling moves are already drawing fans and could even inspire the next generation of women hoopers. 

While Fulwiley’s stats might not be as eye-popping as others on this list — she is averaging 11.3 points over 18.9 minutes per game — It’s important to point out she is part of an extremely deep and championship-ready South Carolina roster. Staley is in no rush to make Fulwiley a full-time starter, but that will certainly come with time. Fulwiley has been cleaning up her game as the season progresses and will definitely be a key piece of the Gamecocks’ success in March.

“She’s now not practicing like she’s a freshman. She looks like she belongs,” Staley said after South Carolina’s win over Missouri on Feb. 8. “She walks like she belongs. She plays like she belongs.”

4. Madison Booker, Texas

Freshmen typically need time to adjust to college competition and learn their roles, but Booker didn’t really have that luxury. Texas got off to its best start since the 2015-16 season with a 13-0 record, but the Longhorns took a huge hit as star point guard Rori Harmon tore her ACL. Booker, a wing in high school, then had to take over point guard duties, and she’s thrived. 

The 2023 Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year has more than lived up to the hype and has done an excellent job at keeping the Longhorns on track. Booker doing so so at a completely new position and without Harmon as team leader has drawn plenty of praise from Texas coach Vic Schaefer. 

“Her teammates have so much confidence in her,” Schaefer told The Daily Texan. “The kid is 18 years old and has the presence of a 25-year-old on the court. She’s comfortable. There’s not a moment too big for her, and I know that her teammates feel that, too. … She’s running the show and leading them.”

Booker leads Texas with 16.4 points per game, as well as five rebounds and five assists per game. She is clearly getting more dangerous and consistent as the season progresses, too. Booker has scored in double figures 19 consecutive games, including a career-high 29 points against Oklahoma in January. 

5. Mikaylah Williams, LSU

The Tigers won the 2023 national championship and returned this season with a super team that included Williams along with impact transfers Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow. Finding playing time on such a stacked roster isn’t easy, but Williams earned her spot in the starting lineup since Day 1. She has since become LSU’s third-leading scorer at 15 points per game, while adding 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per contest.

Williams showed her superstar potential in only the fourth game of the season, when she dropped 42 points against Kent State — the highest point total from an LSU player in the last 25 years. To LSU coach Kim Mulkey, that was just a taste of what Williams will accomplish later in her career.

“I want to be that coach that pushes her beyond the limits,” Mulkey said. “I think you’re just seeing her scratch the surface.”

The Tigers have had some stumbles throughout the season, including Williams, who had back-to-back games with just four points against Texas A&M and Auburn this month. However, Mulkey is still incredibly satisfied with what Williams has done thus far. 

“I think Mikaylah has had an unbelievable freshman year. She’s adjusted into the college game,” Mulkey said, per Nola.com. “She’s got a lot of things that she’s done good this year and continues to just get better at.”





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