It’s showtime: L.A. native Jordin Canada takes leading role for Sparks

Sparks guard Jordin Canada brings the ball up court against the Chicago Sky.
Point guard Jordin Canada has helped the Sparks improve their offensive efficiency this season during a 2-2 start on the road.
(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)
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As if a come-from-behind overtime win over the defending champions on the road wasn’t a good enough way for Jordin Canada to start her Sparks career, the former Windward School and UCLA star got an extra warm welcome back to L.A. on social media the next day.

And it came in the form of a Magic Johnson tweet.

“Yo this is crazy!” Canada wrote in response after the Lakers legend praised Canada’s addition to the Sparks following the team’s season-opening win over the Chicago Sky. “From Showtime himself!”

Taking inspiration from another point guard, Canada hopes to usher in the next exciting era of professional basketball in her hometown. The speedy, 5-foot-6 point guard is averaging a career-high 15.5 points with 4.5 assists, leading the Sparks (2-2) to a solid start on the road before their home opener Tuesday against the Minnesota Lynx at Crypto.com Arena.

Canada can reprise her role as a go-to player after four years of being Sue Bird’s understudy with the Seattle Storm. Her performance on opening night — a career high-tying 21 points that included three late free throws to send the game to overtime — showed Canada is more than ready to own the limelight again.

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To UCLA coach Cori Close, Canada’s start to the season wasn’t the birth of a WNBA star, but more a reminder of what Canada always had.

“When the pressure is the highest, she’s the one that’s going to want to make a play,” Close said. “[She’s now] a new, a better, more improved version because she did do so much improving and growing and learning when she was in Seattle. But that’s the thing she’s always had: She’s had the competitive heart of a lion.”

Sparks coach Derek Fisher noted Canada is “more of a quiet leader.” But, Close said, “there’s just something about the big moment that brings out something in little, shy Jordin, and it’s ferocious.”

Canada’s fearless alter ego already has left a trail of victories all over her hometown.

As a freshman at Windward, she made the game-winning three-pointer with 47 seconds remaining to win the program’s first state title in Division IV. She went out as a senior with an Open Division championship, dismantling top-ranked Santa Ana Mater Dei for her third CIF Southern Section division title.

Her UCLA career started with another title as she notched 31 points and four steals while making 13 of 15 free throws to carry the Bruins to the WNIT championship. They parlayed the success into the school’s first consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, which included UCLA’s first Elite Eight since 1999. To get the Bruins over the hump, Canada, then a senior, scored 20 of her team-high 22 points in the second half against Texas and added eight assists and five steals.

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UCLA coach Cori Close talks with Jordin Canada during a timeout.
UCLA coach Cori Close talks with Jordin Canada during a timeout in a game against Baylor in 2017.
(Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Even in a limited role in Seattle, Canada flashed similar moments of brilliance. As a rookie, Canada shot 35.7% from the field and 18.2% from three during the season. Those numbers jumped to 47.7% and 36.4% in the playoffs, helping the Storm win the 2018 championship, the first of two titles for Canada in her four-year tenure with the team.

Canada, 26, played 112 regular-season games with 45 starts and valiantly stepped in for Bird when the 12-time All-Star missed the 2019 season. But overall, Canada averaged a modest 7.2 points with 4.1 assists and 2.1 rebounds in the regular season.

The Storm drafted Canada fifth overall in 2018, envisioning that UCLA’s all-time assist leader and second-leading scorer would be the heir apparent to Bird, who was 36 at the time. But the five-time Olympic gold medalist’s career stretched into a 21st season this year, and after four years of deferring to Olympians Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, Canada faced a tough free-agency decision.

“I think Jordin was just really hungry to do more,” Bird said, “to show more of herself, which is totally understandable.”

As Canada takes on a larger role with the Sparks, both she and Bird noted the young point guard’s maturation. Canada reveled in the opportunity to learn the way Bird plays and thinks about the game. She took a backseat to observe how to lead a championship team. Now in L.A., she has the keys and is slamming the accelerator.

The Sparks were the WNBA’s lowest-scoring team last season, averaging 72.8 points per game and 93.7 points per 100 possessions. It was the lowest offensive efficiency in Sparks history, according to Basketball Reference. Those marks are up to 80 and 97.2 points, respectively, despite a difficult four-game trip to start the year with a roster missing steady veteran guard Kristi Toliver, who is coaching with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs, and sharpshooting wing Katie Lou Samuelson, who is finishing her overseas season.

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With a promising start to the season, Johnson, a team owner, turned to Twitter to persuade fans to attend home games, using a local daughter as his headliner.

“LA fans, come out and see @LASparks star Jordin Canada!” Johnson tweeted after the season-opening win, adding Canada’s credentials of starring at Windward School and UCLA. It has been liked nearly 2,500 times.

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Getting a Twitter shoutout from Johnson was humbling, Canada said. He’s “one of the greatest basketball players to play the game, let alone to play for the Lakers,” she marveled nearly a week later.

Canada grew up a diehard Lakers fan, obsessing over Kobe Bryant and relishing the city’s championship tradition. Identifying the inspiration of her own late-game heroics isn’t hard.

“We kind of have that sense of swagger about us when we’re playing the game,” Canada said of her L.A. roots. “Just that not-backing-down mentality, rising to the occasion and just being challenged and accepting that challenge.”

Transforming into a role player after starring on every team since childhood was hard, Canada acknowledged, but it comes with being a professional. She developed confidence in her game. A 17.9% three-point shooter in Seattle, Canada prefers to think of herself as a Chris Paul-like mid-range assassin. She learned how to be ready at a moment’s notice.

No matter her role, Canada remained focused on her ultimate goal.

“Winning is most important to Jordin Canada,” Close said. “I think that’s what allows her” to accept different roles. “She would rather win and compete at the highest levels than be a star or make it about her. If she can do both, great, but her leading toward winning ways is always going to be the predominant value.”

Jordin Canada makes a pass above the kicked out leg of Aces guard Dearica Hamby.
Jordin Canada makes a pass above the kicked out leg of Aces guard Dearica Hamby during a game with the Seattle Storm last season.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Canada, a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect coming out of Windward, spurned offers from established powerhouses like Connecticut and Tennessee in favor of building her hometown Bruins.

The Bruins went to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 the year after Canada graduated, and their streak of five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was the longest in school history. The program had no more than three years of consecutive WNBA draft picks before Canada and fellow 2018 pick Monique Billings. Beginning with Canada, a total of five Bruins heard their names called over four consecutive years.

But Canada never won the championship, which would have been UCLA’s first women’s title. With the Sparks, it’s a new opportunity to make good on a lifelong dream.