SALT LAKE CITY — The biggest offseason priority for the Utah basketball team was finding a point guard — a true point guard that the Utes had been lacking the past few seasons.
The Utes looked far and wide and ended up getting one of the best in Josh Watkins, who last spring led his Howard College team to the national junior college championship, where he was named the MVP.
Watkins had all kinds of top programs after him, from Kansas State and Baylor, two Elite Eight teams last year, to Cincinnati and Texas Tech. But he chose Utah largely because of the loyalty of the Ute coaches, who were on him early and never gave up.
"They came to my practices and every game at nationals," he said. "Even if I had a bad game, they never showed that they weren't interested. Utah was right there. Then I got to visit with (Ute) players and everything just seemed right."
Now Watkins, who has been known as "Jiggy" his whole life, gets his chance to show what he can do on the floor when he plays his first official major college game Friday night when the Utes take on Grand Canyon University at the Huntsman Center.
"We haven't had a guy like this since we've been here," said Ute coach Jim Boylen. "He's a physical presence who plays through contact and can get the ball in the paint. He can find the open guy, he can drive and pitch and score around the rim. He has an unbelievable ability to finish in traffic and embrace contact."
Watkins, who is listed as 6-foot, 200 pounds (although he is probably more like 5-10), showed those skills in the Utes' exhibition game last week when he scored 22 points, including 10 at the free-throw line on 13 attempts. He looked a bit like a bowling ball, rolling in and out of traffic from one end of the floor to the other.
"I'm feeling real comfortable," said Watkins. "I like to play up-tempo, running the floor, getting the ball to the outlets. Coach says we're going to push the ball way more than we have been, which is great because that's more my game."
Besides the physical presence on the floor, Boylen likes Watkins' leadership ability. He showed that last year in leading his team to a national title. And even though he's new to the team, Watkins has already become one of the team leaders.
"As he learns our system, he's becoming more vocal and he's leading more," said Boylen. "He is respected by the team and has the personality where he can pull people in and can lead. He's a guy with a charismatic personality and championship experience."
"He keeps us together," adds junior center David Foster. "He has a vital role, pushing the basketball and providing an offensive threat. We love playing with him."
Watkins grew up in Harlem in New York City, where he starred for Wadleigh High School, averaging 25.6 points and 6.0 assists. He was all-city and all-league and voted Manhattan Player of the Year.
He took his talents to Texas and last year averaged 16 points and 5.0 assists for Howard and was first-team all-Region V, before getting his national honors at the NJCAA tournament in Kansas.
Watkins says he's had no problem adjusting to life in Salt Lake after growing up in New York City and living in Texas for a couple of years.
"This is still a big city, just more slow-paced," he said. "I love the city here. Everybody is nice and supportive and the people are real respectful."
As for his nickname, why do they call him "Jiggy?"
"I never found out," Watkins said. "My mom and my auntie gave that to me when I was little and everyone calls me that. I never asked them. I just stuck with it."