How Jordin Canada came home and flourished with the Sparks

Jordin Canada had only one offer going into WNBA free agency before last season: a training camp spot with the Sparks. It came out of nowhere, she said. And though it promised no long-term guarantees, it was a dream come true for the lifelong Sparks and Lakers fan.

The L.A. native knew it was time to come home after playing four years in Seattle as Sue Bird’s backup.

“I just thought that was a sign from God telling me that I have to bet on myself,” Canada said before Tuesday’s 76-75 loss to the Chicago Sky. “At that point in my career, being in Seattle for four years, I had to think to myself that I want to be a backup or did I want to come in and I want to better myself and show everybody what I’m capable of.”

Though she won two WNBA titles on a “fully stacked” team in Seattle, Canada said of her time in Seattle: “At one point, it kind of became like a job, like I was just showing up.”

Canada, 28, has rediscovered her love of basketball in L.A and is having a career-best season that has made her a prime candidate for the WNBA’s most improved player award. After averaging 9.2 points, 5.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds a game last season, she is averaging 13.5 points, six assists and 3.2 rebounds this year.

She is also averaging a league-leading 2.2 steals per game, compared with 1.4 in 2022. With her 74th steal of the season Tuesday night, she broke the Sparks’ franchise record set by four-time All-Star Alana Beard in 2017.

But Canada’s not keeping score. “Oh,” she said with a small smile after the game. “I didn’t know that.”

Her improvement from the three-point line is “somewhat unprecedented in this league,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said Tuesday. She’s shooting 35.4% from three this season, more than double her percentage in 2022 (14%).

The 2022 offseason was a game-changer for Canada, who chose to play domestically for Athletes Unlimited rather than overseas. She compared it to the simplicity of playing pickup or club basketball as a kid. “Just going out there and just not having to think about Xs and O’s …”

“It was just getting back to that joy that I had when I was a kid and falling in love with the game again.” She added that it helped her play “like herself” again: freely and not overthinking or doubting her abilities.

Her former coach at UCLA, Cori Close, took notice of Canada’s new spark and texted her, “I see the joy back in your eyes,” earlier this season.

“That’s how I feel,” Canada said about Close and lifelong friends reaching out. “I feel like I’m playing with a lot of joy. I’m loving the game again and I’m glad that other people can see that as well.”

UCLA coach Cori Close talks with Jordin Canada during a game in November 2017.

(Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Canada, a quiet and lead-by-example player, also spent time watching her old UCLA film in search of her fearless and fiery alter ego.

“I felt like that’s what I’m playing like now, just getting back to that confidence and that mentality of being aggressive and not being afraid of the moments,” she said. “And not shying away from, like I said, big moments and just playing like myself.”

She has been a playmaker and a rock during the Sparks’ injury-filled season, starting in 33 games and averaging 32.5 minutes. Specifically, she has stepped up for veteran guard Layshia Clarendon, who has returned from injury but missed her 15th game Tuesday for “health and safety protocols.”

“That’s just kind of the role that I have on his team,” Canada said after Tuesday’s game. “I have a lot to carry, I have a lot on my plate, and I accept the challenge day in and day out.”

A quick-footed and quiet presence, Canada’s actions speak for themselves. But, she knew that being the Sparks’ starting point guard meant she’d have to be more of a vocal leader.

Besides signing plays, directing teammates and calmly dribbling the ball after a Sparks rebound while thinking of the next move, Canada now keeps the team centered alongside seasoned veterans Nneka Ogwumike, Clarendon and Jasmine Thomas. In team huddles she’ll say, “Let’s calm down, just try to get a good shot, let’s be focused, and we’re good.”

Watching Canada develop confidence as a leader is “just fun to see,” Miller said. He believes she’s the front-runner for most improved player, not just because she’s top two in steals or top five in assists in the league. But, because of how she has grown as a prominent voice on the team. Canada attributes some of that to having the trust of her teammates.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else close,” Close said about Canada’s chances at being named most improved, adding that she watches as much WNBA as she possibly can. “The way that she’s commanded the team, the impact performances, but also the way that she steadied that ship through all their injuries.”

The Sparks (15-20) were forced to use 12 starting lineups due to those injuries in the first half of the season. But after a 7-13 start, the Sparks are now a half-game ahead of the Sky for the final playoff spot with five games remaining.

Canada, who sports a tattoo saying “Family Over Everything” on the side of her right forearm, has shared no downside to playing in her hometown.

Although one of Canada’s trademarks is keeping cool and competitive under pressure, Close thinks playing in L.A. may increase the stakes.

“She’s got a lot of people that are really rooting for her, tied to her; it’s easy to slip into feeling responsible to those people. But on the other hand, she’s unconditionally loved.

“And on the other hand, she gets a chance to build women’s basketball and girls’ basketball in the town that raised her. … So I think, yes, it is a pressure. But it truly is a privilege as well.”

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