November 9, 2016, published on espnW.com
The Bruins knew what was coming. Especially point guard Jordin Canada, who hurried to the baseline.
“On the line,” said coach Cori Close, signaling suicide sprints toward the end of practice last week. A male practice player had slipped past three UCLA players to drain a corner jumper.
Men’s players, 26. UCLA, 9.
It didn’t matter that the No. 9-ranked Bruins had pounded NAIA Westmont 80-45 in an exhibition the night before.
“I want every possession to be played with a sense of urgency,” said Close, who guided the Bruins to the Sweet 16 last season for the first time since 1999.
Canada, who walked across her family’s living-room floor at 8 months old before having ever crawled, doesn’t know any gear other than all-out. The junior All-American dropped 15 points, 5 assists, 5 steals, 4 rebounds and 1 block against Westmont — even crashing into her team’s bench to save a ball in the blowout.
The 5-foot-6 playmaker often flies up the court, throwing no-look passes and twisting ankles with in-and-out crossovers. Ryan Finney of UCLA Athletics Communications said he struggles to live-tweet games because he runs out of adjectives to describe Canada’s flair. “She’s a human highlight reel,” Finney said.
But what Canada really wants to be is a leader. She dribbled a ball during the recent suicide sprints, and instead of stopping at the baseline like her teammates, she continued to sprint a few feet beyond the line.
She still beat everyone.
“That is the difference of Jordin between being a really great, flashy, fun point guard to now being an elite point guard that has a chance to be an Olympian,” Close said. “It’s those inches that you see her go every day.
“It’s not her talent; it’s not even her skill. It’s that she’s developing a beyond-the-line mentality.”
Finding her voice
Canada was sick of the missed layups. She and her Windward School prep teammates gasped for air, unable to make seven in a minute on both sides in the full-court drill. Windward coach Vanessa Nygaard, a former Stanford and WNBA player, signaled to keep sprinting.
Canada, motioning for her teammates to clear out and rebound for her, zoomed off. “Jordin was like, ‘I’m going. I’m taking every layup,'” said Nygaard, who doubted one player could accomplish the feat alone. “She dominated it.”
It wasn’t always that way. Unable to dribble as a 6-year-old, Canada was easy prey for the taller kids.
“I was always afraid. I would pick the ball up and I would just hold it. I’d panic and crunch down and they would all trap me,” Canada said. “My coach would always have to call a timeout.”
Her coach told her that she’d have to play point guard and learn to take care of the ball. “She didn’t want it,” said Joyce Canada, Jordin’s mother. “She wanted to shoot.”
But 8-year-old Canada was hooked once she discovered she could handle the rock against 10-year-olds at an AAU national tournament. She loved running the offense and dropping dimes.
She was also drawn to challenges. That’s partially why she chose UCLA, hoping to bring the program its first NCAA championship (the Bruins won the 1978 AIAW national title).
But Canada struggled as a freshman starting point guard on a UCLA team of veterans. She had always led by example — rarely by using her voice. That had to change.
She could pass and score at will, but didn’t always labor on the skills that came less naturally.
That had to change.
Canada wasn’t sure if she could handle the role, at one point contemplating quitting the team.
But the rookie broke through, pouring in 31 points to lead UCLA to a 62-60 victory over West Virginia in the 2015 WNIT championship.
“I realized that I needed to use my voice because I’m the one that’s handling the ball and putting people in different places,” Canada said. “At the end of the season, I knew I could do it.”
She blossomed last season, returning with an improved jumper and versatile game. Leading the Bruins in scoring (16.1 points per game), assists (5.7 per game) and steals (2.3 per game), she was a calming force.
“Jordin’s just a poised person,” forward Monique Billings said. “She doesn’t panic. She brings confidence.” And her change-of-pace moves in transition?
“You think you’re in front of her,” said Southern California senior guard Courtney Jaco, a Windward teammate, “but she’s so quick, so explosive, she’s gone in the next second.”
Still, Canada rarely spoke up.
Until she had to. UCLA trailed Cal at halftime in the semifinals of the 2016 Pac-12 tournament. Canada took over, scoring eight of her 26 points in overtime in the 73-67 victory.
“She was just yelling and getting on people and wanting people to step up,” shooting guard Kari Korver said. “She prefers to be quiet, that’s her personality, but when we need her to step up and say something, she’s going to do that, because she’s such a competitor.”
Canada guided the Bruins to the Sweet 16 — the best NCAA tournament run for the program in 17 years — where they lost to Texas 72-64.
Three weeks later, she was back in the gym.
‘Growing into it’
Canada usually arrives to Pauley Pavilion an hour before practice for her daily routine: 150 made jump shots. She blocks out the hype swirling around her, like being compared to Chris Paul or Allen Iverson, or being named the 21st best player in the nation by espnW, or to the watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the country’s top point guard.
She is busy lifting weights at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. Or studying how her favorite point guard, Rajon Rondo, weaves his way to the basket. Or dissecting game film and jotting down her mistakes as they flash across the screen: Over-penetrated. Missed a kickout pass. Bad shot selection.
Her coaches demand more, too. Sometimes Close silences her other nine players, mandating Canada talk for the entire possession. And when players have to sink seven 17-foot jumpers in a shooting drill, Canada must make eight 3-pointers. She is always hounded by two male practice players in scrimmages; sometimes Close throws in a third at random.
Canada is still finding her voice. She spends hours each week with the team’s leadership council, a group of captains and seniors led by assistant coach Shannon Perry. Canada yells “up” during each push-up in practice and alerts her teammates to switch or help on defense in games.
“She’s growing into it,” Perry said. “My goal for her now is, ‘How do you make everyone around you better?’ That’s her responsibility.”
The recent practice runs 20 minutes late. Six seconds remain in the scrimmage as a UCLA player prepares to inbound the ball to Canada.
But Canada isn’t pleased. The men are giving her way too much space and aren’t pressuring her teammates, either. She probably wants to go home like everyone else — but she also wants to do the drill right.
Canada turns across the court and opens her mouth: “Are you guys going to pick us up on defense or what?”
The men swarm her. She can barely catch the ball. She finally wrestles it away and begins to dribble. They trap her on all sides, but she doesn’t pick up the ball. She doesn’t crunch over. She doesn’t ask for a timeout.
She breaks free.