Ability, work elevating UCLA’s Monique Billings to a new level

Monique Billings elevates to try and stop Maite Cazorla's shot. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.
Monique Billings elevates to try and stop Maite Cazorla’s shot. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.

Finding the words to describe Monique Billings’ game isn’t easy.

First, there is the UCLA junior forward’s skill set. In Sunday’s game against Oregon, where she posted a career-high 30 points, Billings’ full cache was on display. She was 11-16 on turn-around jumpers, reverse layups, floaters and hook shots. She snatched a game-high 14 rebounds, which lead to many critical second-chance points. Billings stole the ball six times, had one block, and at the end of the game tried a dunk after running away from everyone else on the floor.

She missed, but the Pauley Pavilion crowd rose to their feet and cheered.

Then there is Billings’ athleticism, which at times borders on surreal. The same long legs that vault her so high off the ground also propel her across the court at lightening speed. In the Bruins’ home game against Michigan last month, Billings put up a 15-footer and then dropped back toward the baseline for defensive position. When she realized the Wolverines were pushing the ball in transition, she sprinted half the court and beat her opponent to her spot on the sideline. The player looked up to see Billings’ long arms stretched out wide, blocking her path out either way. There was nothing for her to do but look to pass the ball.

Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.
Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.

Last night against USC, Billings dominated the paint and put up 28 points to go with 11 rebounds. It was her eleventh double-double of the season.

Billings’ own teammate Jordin Canada – a great player in her own right – marvels at her running mate.

“Mo is just ridiculous – she’s a freakish athlete,” Canada said. “Some things she does I’m like, ‘how is that possible?’ I love playing with Mo. I didn’t get a chance to play against her in high school, and the first time I saw her play was in my junior year during club ball we were in Nike Nationals in Atlanta. I was so excited she was coming to UCLA.”

Longtime UCLA season ticket holder Pat Meighan said Billings often does things he can’t believe.

“She can get up, hang there, and hang and hang, and do three different things with the ball while her defender jumps, and lands and jumps again and lands again,” Meighan said. “It’s like Mo is wearing a jet pack. She’s not fair.”

Opponents might feel the same way about the Southern California native. She is averaging 18 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for the No. 13 Bruins, which makes her the fourth-leading scorer and the second-best rebounder in the Pac 12, and the tenth-leading rebounder in Division I. Colorado coach JR Payne was asked about what it’s like to play against Billings at a post-game press conference earlier this month.

Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.
Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.

“What challenge does she not present?” Payne said. “She’s one of the best post players in the country, and you can’t guard her one-on-one; we certainly didn’t try to. She’s tremendous; you can never really stop a kid like that – you just hope to slow them down.”

Buffs forward Haley Smith added with a laugh: “I don’t think she could guard herself.”

It would be easy to attribute Billings’ meteoric rise to her natural abilities, but that is a far-too-convenient fallacy. The reality is that Billings is discovering where the road leads when talent meets relentless work ethic.

A “toothpick”

Renault Banks remembers the day a tall, baby-faced fourth-grader first showed up to play for his Corona Lady Diamonds club ball team.

“She had big feet, long legs, was tall and skinny,” Banks said.

Billings has only recently begun playing basketball, after seeing a girl’s team play while taking a walk with her father, Chuck. She was captivated, but had a lot to learn.

“She didn’t have a lot of skills, but she had great instincts,” Banks said. “She really had a nose for the ball.”

What stood out most, however, was Billings’ athleticism.

“She could really jump!” Banks said. “Most girls can’t jump.”

Billings got to work and helped the Diamonds win a national championship in 2007. It was a relief for Chuck Billings, a former football player, to see his daughter embrace basketball.

“There was a period when she took ballet, and I had to sit back and cringe,” he said. “While all the girls doing pirouettes, Monique would look like she was going up for a reverse.”

Billings’ first sport was Taekwondo, which proved to be a good foundation for her.

“She had a cool instructor who was really strict and made them stand up straight. The teacher got her respect,” Chuck Billings said. “She started learning that when you’re doing an activity like that you’ve got to take it seriously, it’s not play time. There’s an element of discipline involved.”

The more Billings played basketball, the louder the buzz grew around her. Chuck Billings was impervious to it initially.

“I was her biggest critic at first, so it’s hard to say when I first noticed her talent.” he said. “People would say this and that, and I’d doubt them.”

By the time she was ready to enter the ninth grade, Billings had made a name for herself. She enrolled at Santiago High School and joined the prestigious West Coast Premier Basketball club program.

WCP coach and director Brian Crichlow knew what he had on his hands right away.

“She was a toothpick. She could run like a deer and jump, but she had just a raw, small skill set – the basics,’ Crichlow said. “When she played with us it was a process of attempting to make her the player she was capable of being. Her potential was obvious.”

Working with Billings was easy, because she was eager to learn and willing to work.

“Mo is the most humble, respectful, coachable kid I’ve ever met, and I’ve coached a lot of kids,” Crichlow said. “She is one of two kids who I can say were complete sponges. Mo wanted to get better and wanted to be the best athlete that her mind and body would allow. She just listened, absorbed, and wanted to work. Kids don’t always want to work, but she didn’t let anything distract her from her goal of becoming a DI player.”

“She is an awesome, awesome kid.”

The summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school proved to be a turning point for Billings, as she guided WCP to the semifinals of Nike Nationals.

Monique Billings powers up a reverse layup. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.
Monique Billings powers up a reverse layup. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.

“She had arrived,” Crichlow said. “She was a 6-1 bouncy kid who beat everyone to the punch. Her attitude was, ‘I will beat you with my quickness. I’ll be more agile, assertive and aggressive.’ Her confidence was through the roof, and after that she also took a bigger role on her high school team.”

As a junior, Billings led Santiago to a California section championship. She was ranked among the top 30 in her class nationwide, and colleges were taking notice. One of those was UCLA.

“It was apparent she was a great athlete,” Bruins coach Cori Close said. “In high school she was a pogo stick; she really stood out in a zone formation. She wasn’t very skilled and didn’t fully understand the game, but we saw so much potential in her.”

Billings grew to 6-4, and she was part of UCLA’s heralded No. 1 draft class of 2014. That fall, the work really began.

“Bambi” takes control

The Bruins took their lumps in 2014-2015, as the freshmen adjusted to college play and each other while tackling a tough schedule. Billings’ challenges were in channeling her power and athletic abilities, and in refining specific skills.

UCLA assistant coach Shannon Perry remembers an assessment and goal-setting session with Billings when she first got to campus.

Monique Billings takes the ball up court. Photo by uclabruins.com.
Monique Billings takes the ball up court against Wasington State earlier this month. Photo by uclabruins.com.

“I asked her what her strength is, and she said running,” Perry said. “For a while she looked like Bambi out there, getting used to the pace of the game. She used to get called for traveling a lot, but she’s got her footwork down now and that never happens anymore.”

At one point Billings had a right hand injury, so she became good at shooting with her left hand. She also began working on different ways to score.

“She always had a great turnaround look, and now she also goes up and under,” Perry said. “You put her in space and no one can stay with her.”

Billings has improved significantly during her time at UCLA, scoring more than triple what she did in her first year and doubling her rebounds. She grabbed a career-high 22 rebounds against No. 6 South Carolina last month. It has made an impression on Close.

“I haven’t ever coached a forward who has had as big of a transformation as Monique. She has been so dramatically different every year she’s been here,” she said. “She has learned so much, and it is a joy to see.”

Billings works hard both inside and outside of practice because she is driven. During winter or summer breaks at home, she’ll contact Crichlow and come work out with WCP.

“She always calls and asks when I’ll be at the gym, because she wants to work out, and she wants to work out hard,” Crichlow said. “It’s been a continual process. It wasn’t me calling her saying I’d be available.”

“She has always outworked the opponent. If you doubt her, she’ll make you remember her name.”

Billings’ blue-collar work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed by Close.

“I’m a big fan of her heart, because she really wants to be great,” Close said. “She’s so committed to adding to her toolbox.”

“I like to think we provide good structure, but outside of that, Mo did that – she has put the work in on her own.”

That is obvious to fans.

“She’s clearly busting her butt to grow as a complete player and not just an athletic specimen,” Meighan said. “Just look at her footwork on the block. It’s immaculate. She didn’t have that in her holster when she rolled into Westwood, but she’s got it now, and that’s hours and hours of work and development.”

Billings said she has been inspired by other players – Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, in particular. And she, in turn, wants to be an inspiration to young women.

“I want to max out my potential when all is said and done,” Billings said.

Her focus is a refreshing throwback, as it is fundamentals-based. She said she has learned to slow down and take development step-by-step.

Monique Billings puts up two of her career-high 30 points on the day. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.
Monique Billings puts up two of her career-high 30 points on the day. Photo by Marvin Jimenez/TG SportsTV1.

“I try not to overload myself with too many different aspects to focus on, and I really try to simplify the process and emphasize only a couple things at one time,” Billings said. “Once I feel like I’ve made progress in a certain area, I begin to expand and stay consistent in making sure I’ve had plenty of repetition.”

Perry said this approach was hard-won, because Billings had one fatal flaw in her quest to improve.

“She really wants to get it right, so she had to break past her perfectionism,” Perry said.

Reading a book on the tendency helped. Perry said UCLA coaches taught her that improvement is a process, and that steps can’t be skipped. She said they also created a safe environment where it was OK to make mistakes. This allowed Billings “the freedom to be great,” according to Perry.

Now Perry endeavors to keep Billings going with statistics.

“She’s motivated by numbers,” Perry said. “I will tell her she needs to get a certain number of points or rebounds to get a double-double, for example, and she responds to that.”

“It has been nice to see her come into her own.”

Billings said she has learned to pursue success instead of waiting for things to happen.

Monique Billings is averaging 18 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season, with 11 double-doubles so far. Photo by Zyaire Porter/ TG SportsTV1.
Monique Billings is averaging 18 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season, with 11 double-doubles so far. Photo by Zyaire Porter/ TG SportsTV1.

“You have to go get what you want and you can’t wait for any handouts,” she said. “I learned this in the beginning of my freshman year, as my minutes in the game began to increase. I realized I didn’t need to ‘wait my turn,’ but instead take advantage of the opportunity in front of me.”

Billings also seems to have stumbled upon the keys to greatness.

“I’ve also realized that when you get what you want you must contain it and be consistent, because basketball is a very competitive sport, and there are no promises or guarantees,” she said.

Her continued improvement has included a growing chemistry with Canada, who has had seven double-doubles of her own this year. The two have guided the Bruins in a top 25 ranking all season long. Canada realizes the responsibility she and Billings have.

“We’re the front runners of the team – we have to lead the team,” Canada said. “It’s all about me and her building our chemistry and making sure we’re on the same page, because we set the tone most of the time. We always have to be on the same page, and that starts at practice. We’ve been able to communicate off the court and on the court, and it’s helped over the years.”

Perry is impressed.

“I don’t know a better post-point guard combination in the nation,” she said.

Peaking at the right time

Close said Billings’ leadership qualities have become as evident off-court as they have been on it, as she helped choose the photographer and organize the team’s photo day last fall. Billings has begun reading books alongside Perry in a voracious quest for more knowledge.

Outside basketball, Billings loves fashion and would like to be a model after a professional basketball career, as well as pursue a broadcasting and journalism career. Perry said Billings wants it all, and she believes she can get it.

Monique Billings is interviewed by the Pac 12 Network after scoring a career high 30 points. Photo by Sue Favor.
Monique Billings is interviewed by the Pac 12 Network after scoring a career high 30 points. Photo by Sue Favor.

“She’s got a great personality, she’s got charisma, she’s charming, she’s athletic,” Perry said. “The sky is the limit for her.”

But for now, Billings and the Bruins have plenty to focus on at the halfway point of the season. After a strong preconference showing, they dropped two games earlier this month to the Washington schools before bouncing back with three consecutive wins. With four other Pac 12 teams ranked in the top 25 in the conference with the country’s highest RPI, UCLA will have to fight hard to make the Sweet 16 showing that they did last year.

Perry said Billings’ development greatly helps their chances.

“She’s peaking at just the right time,” Perry said.

Amazingly, Close thinks Billings has just begun.

“She just turns on the jets in such a smooth manner that she doesn’t realize she’s doing it,” Close said. “I think she has another burner that she’s eventually going to discover.”

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