UCLA coach Cori Close remembers the first few weeks of practice for incoming freshmen Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, in the summer of 2014.
“Jordin couldn’t even get it up the court with the (practice player) guys pressuring her,” Close said. “She kept saying she was no good.”
“For Monique, I remember thinking that it’s a good thing she plays fast, because every time she touched the ball, she traveled. Her feet were sliding all over the place, she couldn’t dribble with her left hand, and she was shooting 47 percent from the free throw line.”
Fast forward to the first week of practice earlier this month, and the evolution of last year’s top two Bruin scorers and rebounders is striking.
A vocal Canada now pushes practice players, stealing the ball from them and snatching rebounds. Billings routinely beats many of the guards on sprint drills, while dribbling the ball.
They practice with the kind of intensity that they have shown for the last two seasons, especially, as they led UCLA to back-to-back NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances. Both made the All-Pac-12 team last spring – Canada, for the second year in a row.
Each athlete took it even further over the summer, when both were named to USA Basketball’s U23 team. They traveled to Japan, where they helped the U.S win the inaugural Four Nations Tournament.
“It was mind-blowing,” Billings said of the experience.
Canada was at a loss for words to describe her feelings.
“I don’t even know,” she said.
But their career statistics at UCLA speak for themselves.
Canada broke the school’s single-season assists record last year, with 242, tied the single-game assists record with 16 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and led the conference in assists all season long. She became just the sixth Bruin to record a triple-double, and she ranked ninth in the nation in assists.
Billings broke UCLA’s single-season rebounding record and tied the single-game mark with 25 during Pac-12 play. She also broke the single-season blocks record last season, with 66. She almost tripled her statistical output from her freshman year, and averaged a double-double last season.
The combination of personal breakthroughs and leading the program to a higher level has got Close thinking she might see both Canada and Billings in the Bruin Hall of Fame someday.
“They’re program-changers,” Close said. “We’ve just had three of the most consistent years since the program started in 1978. Jordin and Monique have not only improved greatly in their individual stats, but they’ve laid the foundation for others. When that happens, now you enter the category of ‘special.’”
Off the court, the growth trajectory of Canada and Billings has been just as exponential. They have become more confident, and each has developed into a leader, ready to push their team to even greater heights in their final season.
“I’m staying focused, motivated and determined to get to where we want to go, and that’s the Final Four hopefully for us this year,” Canada said.
Hard focus, more pliable approach
In contemplating what lies ahead, which will likely include being drafted into the WNBA next spring, both Canada and Billings sound older than their years in that they are taking a one-step-at-a-time approach.
“Staying present is really in my mind right now, and a lot of people are in my ear about the future, but I want to focus on the season ahead,” Billings said. “I’m trying to be the best teammate that I can be for my team. To leave with no regrets.”
Canada said she won’t hold back.
“Since this is my last year, you have to go all out,” she said. “This is the last chance to do something with a special group of girls. I’m going to be focused and not think too far ahead about what’s going to happen in the future, and I’m going to try to embrace every moment and have fun.”
That includes another run through the talent-laden Pac-12, which had the highest RPI in the country last year.
“Our teams are just unbelievable in terms of athleticism and smarts,” Canada said of the conference. “I think it’s going to be a battle every single game, and we just have to focus on us and make sure we’re doing everything we can that we need to do to get those wins.”
Billings said her lens as a senior has caused her to reflect.
“It’s really interesting being one of the older players in the Pac 12 now, because when we came in our freshman year we were feeding off of the older players,” she said. “I’m prideful. I don’t know how to say it, but it goes back to the standard thing. We have a standard at UCLA and I’m ready to fight, because like Jordin said, it will be a fight. And I’m ready to defend and play hard.”
The persona of both athletes is more relaxed than it ever has been during their time in Westwood. Their lighter approach has been helped by the team newcomers, whom Close characterizes as a boost for her two stars.
“Our freshman have brought this joy-filled atmosphere, and for Jordin and Monique it has been a breath of fresh air,” Close said. “Jordin told them she’s glad they are there. I told Jordin that she’s smiled more in the last few months than in she has in the last three years.”
Close realized the fierce, driven natures of Canada and Billings a long time ago, and has been pleasantly surprised to see them ease a bit this fall.
“I know how bad they want to be great,” Close said. “I know how much they’re putting that pressure on themselves, so I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves now.”
The mature outlook of both players, who have been scouted by WNBA coaches since they were sophomores, has been hard-won, on their own terms.
Both were part of the Bruins’ five-woman, No. 1 recruiting class of 2014 when they arrived on campus. But that, and their on-court intensity, was about all they had in common.
Canada, the youngest of two children, is a small guard from West Los Angeles who began playing basketball at age 6, and was receiving interest from colleges by seventh grade. Quiet and shy off the court, Canada was a beast on it, and she was ranked sixth in the nation in her high school class.
Billings is the oldest of two – a tall, reedy forward from the Inland Empire who didn’t take up hoops until she was in fourth grade. Outgoing and charismatic, Billings was known for a long time more for her incredible athleticism than her basketball skills. She was ranked 37th in UCLA’s heralded class behind Canada, Lajahna Drummer, Recee’ Caldwell and Kelli Hayes.
Because of the stature of the class, the Bruins entered the 2014-2015 season ranked. Then they dropped their first four games and fell from the top 25. Three more losses by the end of December and they were 4-7 going into Pac-12 play. They ended 8-10 in conference and lost in the Pac-12 Tournament’s second round.
But a surprise run in the WNIT ended in a 62-60 win over West Virginia for the Championship, which included a 31-point outpour from Canada. The title gave the whole season new meaning, and filled the team with inspiration.
Shortly afterward, however, Caldwell announced she was transferring to Texas Tech University. The news was especially hard on Canada, who had become good friends with Caldwell. That, coupled with disappointment in her own season performance, caused Canada to contemplate transferring from UCLA herself. But in the end, she opted to stay.
Billings, meanwhile, worked on her game all summer long, and looked better than ever entering her sophomore year. She joined Canada as a starter, and has not missed a game since.
The Bruins began the 2015-2016 season unranked, but climbed into the top 25 just weeks later after losing only two games – close ones – to ranked South Carolina and Notre Dame. They finished the year 22-7 overall and 14-4 in conference play, and lost to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship. UCLA advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 round for the first time since 1999 before losing to Texas.
Following that showing, Canada and Billings returned for their junior years as changed athletes.
Canada became a true floor general, shouting instructions to teammates in every game while maintaining a steely composure through physical conference play. Billings showcased an improved skill set that she combined with even greater athleticism, which thrust her into the national NCAA spotlight. The duo was suddenly in the conversation for best high-low combination in the country.
The season had its ups and downs, including a pair of losses to both the Washington and Oregon schools – the latter of which resulted in a two-hour team meeting in the visitor’s locker room at the University of Oregon. The Bruins worked it out, won their last four games and again advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Canada and Billings took the lessons from the past three years, as well as those from USA Basketball, and grew them into wisdom. Each said their goal this season is to lead the team and prepare the younger players to carry on after they leave.
“It starts in practice, being the example, setting the standard,” Billings said. “A big emphasis on our team is not to hold each other to lower standards, but to surpass expectations every single day, and it starts in practice, working hard, giving your best effort and going 100 percent that day.”
Canada realizes that being a role model comes with responsibility.
“Being in the position I’m in, I have to be able to teach the freshmen and the other young players what’s expected and how we do things here,” she said. “So when we leave here, they’ll be able to carry on the work and live up to the high standard that coach expects from us. I have to give 100 percent every single day and lead by example.”
Asked if they felt responsible to teach the younger players so they could carry on their legacy, Canada and Billings turned serious.
“Yes,” they answered in unison.
Off-court growth exponential, as well
Hard work and a hunger to succeed has propelled both Canada and Billings to the top, and that has included work on their mental outlook. Because as much talent as each has, it took them both a while to understand it for themselves.
Canada said her self-esteem has grown most since she arrived at UCLA.
“I didn’t have enough confidence in myself as a freshman. I wasn’t able to lead my team in ways I knew how, because I was young,” Canada said. “But as the years went on, I learned that I have a voice and I need to use it. And I learned that my words are very powerful and can effect different people, and my teammates.”
“Also, I’ve learned to be more hungry, to grow and to get better as a point guard and an overall player in general. I always want to learn and grow better not only in my weaknesses, but my strengths.”
Billings realized she must be her own advocate, and that she should always follow her instincts.
“I’ve learned to believe in myself,” she said. “You have to be your own best friend out here in a way. You have to look out for yourself because it’s very competitive, and you have to have your own back. I’ve learned that I can, and that I don’t have to wait my turn; I can go get what I want.”
Each athlete has also assigned basketball its proper role in life.
“It’s a perspective thing. That’s something I really learned this past summer,” Billings said. “With the USA team, I sort of put it on a pedestal and was thinking if I didn’t make this team the world was going to end. (Now I’m) putting basketball in perspective, being thankful for what I have and staying present, living in the moment.”
Canada said she has remembered why she first started playing the game.
“(I’m) just having fun, because at the end of the day it’s just a game,” she said. “Yes I’m very competitive, but basketball’s not going to last forever, so I have to realize that. I have to be competitive, but at the same time realize it’s just a game.”
Close said watching Billings transform from a raw, unpolished athlete with great potential to who and what she is today has been amazing. As a court coach for U23 camp, Close saw it first hand.
“It all culminated this summer watching her try out for the USA team,” Close said. “She’s not only latched on to being a great basketball player, but being a great teammate and extending herself. She busted out of her comfort zone for the sake of the team and the country.”
“I’m proud of her giving spirit. How that translates on a team is something she matured into.”
Canada came to UCLA with strong offense, and she has worked to become one of the best defenders in the country, Close said. The relationship between coach and athlete has grown leaps and bounds, too.
“Jordin hasn’t always loved me,” Close said. “I had to work to gain her trust, I had to work to get her to buy in, and we kept taking small steps to get on the same page, basketball-wise. Our relationship wasn’t an overnight connection, but the reward was watching her buy into what we had in place.”
“It wasn’t an easy time, but it’s been one of the most rewarding.”
The growth of the two Bruins hasn’t been lost on their parents.
Joyce Canada said her daughter has matured in every way.
“As a senior, she’s grown in leading the team, being more vocal and holding other players accountable,” Joyce Canada said. “She’s more confident in everything, including academics and being more sociable and open. She’s not as shy as she used to be. She can handle the demands of being a student-athlete.”
“She is really excited about this year.”
Jane Billings said she has been impressed with Monique’s strength.
“She takes challenges where others would curl into a ball, she takes them on,” Jane Billings said. “She has worked hard and taken everything in, taken every bit of feedback in, and committed to the process. She doesn’t have to compare herself to others, because her standards for herself are higher.”
“She’s good at gauging where she is and where she needs to be. My role is to boost her up when she’s feeling down or when she hasn’t had a great game. She’s a very insightful individual and she’s into her own personal development. She journals, and she reads her devotionals.”
Canada, Billings and UCLA begin their quest to reach the Final Four in earnest next month, as they host both Baylor and UConn.
Billings said they plan to attack the year.
“I don’t want to look back at the season and say, ‘oh, if I would have done this, or if this would have happened.’ I don’t want any what-ifs,” Billings said. “I just want to give it my all, have fun and play really hard.”