February 18, 2022
In Bella Mauricio and Kyla Jones, Brown could have the Ivy League’s backcourt of the future
'Nobody really knows a lot of us on Brown’
When I asked Brown guard Bella Mauricio whether she prefers to go by Isabella or Bella, she chose the latter almost by default. “It’s too late. It’s already spread,” she said.
“Well, you’re in good company as a Bella in the Ivy League. The last one was pretty good,” I replied, referring to former Princeton and current Dallas Wings forward Bella Alarie.
“Actually, that’s a very good point,” Mauricio said. “Yeah, let’s stick with Bella.”
The point isn’t to compare Mauricio and Alarie’s games—for one thing, Alarie is 6’5, while Mauricio’s listed height of 5’4 is “with the bun and shoes, maybe rounded up a little bit,” she admitted. But the competitive spirit Mauricio showed in her answer is one reason why she is making her own mark in the Ivy League, alongside backcourt mate Kyla Jones.
Mauricio and Jones, a 5’9 sophomore, are both impressing in their first seasons of college competition, accounting for 44% of Brown’s points, 37% of its steals and 36% of its assists while playing just 29% of its minutes. Mauricio is averaging 14.2 points per game — best on the Bears and sixth in the Ivy League — and shooting 35.5% from 3-point range, while Jones chips in 12.2 points per game and leads the league with 2.7 steals per game.
Neither player is a finished product, but their games already complement and elevate one another, and they have two more full seasons to develop together. Despite Brown’s struggles this season — the Bears are just 6-16 overall and 1-9 in the Ivy League — there are signs that Mauricio and Jones could soon be one of the Ivy League’s most dynamic and productive backcourts.
Mauricio and Jones’s paths to Division I basketball both started in hoops-loving families. Mauricio is from Pleasanton, California, and her family has produced a few junior college players and a litany of Los Angeles Lakers fans. She remembers seeing the NBA on television as a toddler and taking her first trip to the gym around age three.
“I just remember sitting on the ground, listening to the squeak of the shoes and being like, ‘Oh, I want to try this game,’” Mauricio told The Next. “And then I just kind of went to the local youth league, tried it out and then the rest is history.”
She began carrying a basketball around everywhere, to the point that her family dubbed it her “stuffed animal.” Yet when she was actually playing, she was much more apt to get rid of the ball than to hold on to it.
“I watched some film on me, just little videos of me playing, and I would just shoot it from anywhere,” she said with a laugh. “Like, I would grab the ball and I’d just have this look of panic on my face [and] throw it at the basket.”
Mauricio kept that reputation as a shooter all through high school, but with much better form and more composure. “[She was] the type of kid that having a 30-point game is just a typical thing,” Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc said, “and, like, dribbles down and hits a pull-up three a couple dribbles over half.”
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Jones, on the other hand, took to defense right away when she started playing competitively in fourth grade. The native Chicagoan worked on her offense in family pickup games, which sometimes included her cousin, current Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker.
“We’ve had a couple people who tried football and stuff, but for the most part, everybody in my family plays or has played basketball,” Jones told The Next. “… Every family has a court in the backyard, and we used to go and shoot around with each other. So it’s definitely been fun having a basketball family.”
By high school, Jones was known as a slasher and a player who thrived in transition—and Chicago’s renowned basketball scene was the perfect environment for her to develop.
“It took me a while to become more aggressive and stuff on offense and really having that killer mentality,” she said. “… Playing in Chicago definitely helped. It’s a lot of great talent there, so it definitely helped me get used to playing against top talent … It also helped me be more aggressive and things like that because I feel like everything was a little scrappier in Chicago, playing-wise.”
Yet both Jones and Mauricio were relatively lightly recruited. Jones said she had “a few” offers but decided rather late that she wanted to play for former Brown head coach Sarah Behn. Having missed Brown’s application deadline, Jones spent a postgraduate year at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 2019-20. She promptly earned First Team All-State honors, matching her accolades in Illinois.
“The style of play was just so much different from what I was accustomed to. So I think that playing in Chicago and then coming and playing in Massachusetts for a little bit, it definitely helped me be able to adjust to different styles of basketball,” Jones said. “I feel like [now] I’m able to really fit my game into different environments and types of play.”
By the time Jones got to Brown, Behn had departed, but LeBlanc was already sold on Jones’s potential. LeBlanc had seen Jones play at a recruiting event when she was the head coach at Merrimack College and appreciated the speedy guard’s “smooth factor.” “She just seems to do things with a little bit of ease,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc asked other coaches at the event whether Jones was committed anywhere and found out Jones was headed to Brown. “I thought, ‘Great get. … She’ll be really great in the Ivy League,’” LeBlanc said in October at the conference’s preseason media day. “So now I’m really excited to be coaching her.”
For Mauricio, the COVID-19 pandemic limited her exposure the summer after her junior year, which is a pivotal time for recruiting. According to LeBlanc, Mauricio was also a role player for an extremely strong Cal Stars AAU program that has produced WNBA players Sabrina Ionescu and Chelsea Gray. Mauricio thought she was headed to Division III New York University until LeBlanc came to Brown.
“I definitely bombarded her with emails,” Mauricio said. “Definitely. Maybe an email a day. I just knew I wanted to go to Brown.”
At the time, LeBlanc was running the program solo because of a university hiring freeze, so it took some time for her to watch Mauricio’s film. But when she did, her reaction was, “Damn, we’ve got a baller.”
One attribute that LeBlanc appreciated about Mauricio right away was her work ethic. Mauricio’s voicemail message, then and now, says, “I’m probably at the gym right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” (“And … I believe her,” LeBlanc added.)
Mauricio is the type of player who didn’t mind the pandemic-extended offseason because it gave her additional time to train. She and her dad built a home gym and outdoor half-court, and she said she worked out “harder than I have in my life.” There was just one wrinkle: To have space for some of her deepest shots, she had to shoot over the side of the house and have her dad roll the ball back.
Entering this season, after a summer on campus for Jones and in the backyard for Mauricio, the duo dreamed of establishing Brown’s basketball bona fides. “I definitely just wanted to go out and play my game and, I guess, make a name for myself because nobody really knows a lot of us on Brown,” Jones said. “… Get people talking about the program, [get] my name out there.”
They started alongside each other in their first college game, a loss to Fairfield, and they have combined for 37 out of a possible 44 starts this season. Mauricio had originally hoped to play at least 20 minutes per game, but she is well above that at 32.7, and Jones is close behind at 28.8.
Jones and Mauricio are integral to Brown’s motion offense, taking a combined 41% of the team’s shots and each “using” over 23% of the possessions while on the court. They find each other well—each player has more assists to the other than to any other teammate—and their strengths create space for the other to do what she does best.
Jones is the driver while Mauricio is the sharpshooter, which forces defenders to choose between helping on Jones or staying tight on Mauricio. According to CBB Analytics, 82.1% of Jones’ shots come in the paint, well above the Division I average of 50.1%, and a recent ESPN+ broadcast described her as “slippery” when she attacks the rim. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of Mauricio’s shots (63.4%) come from 3-point range, and her 59 made threes in 21 games against Division I opponents rank 33rd in Division I.
“We definitely play well off of each other,” Jones said. “I think we have great communication on the floor. We’re always telling each other, ‘It’s okay if you miss. Keep shooting; keep doing what you do.’ … I think we really work well together.”
“We always try and hype each other up and make sure we both have good games,” Mauricio added. “I love playing with her.”
Mauricio in particular should merit consideration for one of the three All-Ivy teams and, potentially, Rookie of the Year. Her scoring average ranks eighth among Ivy freshmen since 2009-10 and behind only Harvard’s Harmoni Turner this season, and her 1.9 assists per game also only trail Turner this season.
“We call her ‘the cheat code,’” teammate Dani Short told assistant coach Samantha Brenner this season after Mauricio drained a tough 3-pointer.
Defensively, Mauricio and Jones frequently serve as “the front door” of Brown’s 2-3 zone, though LeBlanc will also play Jones on the back line in smaller lineups. Mauricio often pressures the ball while Jones lurks for steals and deflections.
“I just feel like I’m really good at anticipating things,” said Jones, whose steal rate of 4.2% ranks 60th nationally and second in the Ivy League. “I’ve been playing basketball for a long time, so I’m able to easily read or figure out what I think people are going to do.”
LeBlanc and her staff first got an inkling of Jones’ defensive potential last spring, when Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions loosened and the team could do non-socially distanced drills for the first time. LeBlanc set up a drill with four offensive players in a box formation and three defenders trying to get deflections.
“The first time that Kyla did that, it was like her hands had a magnet to the ball,” LeBlanc recalled. “Somebody would pass fake and go the other way and I thought it was the right move, and then out of nowhere she would … deflect it. … Tyler [Patch], my assistant, and I looked at each other [and] we were like, ‘Oh, yeah. Hell yeah, let’s go.’”
As good as Jones and Mauricio have been all season, they seemingly found another gear entering conference play. Jones had a career-high 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting in a Dec. 30 win at St. John’s, plus five rebounds, four assists and three steals. “That’s the [game] that stands out to me the most because I feel like I did a little bit of everything that game, which is what I know I’m capable of,” she said.
Just over a month later, in the Bears’ first Ivy League win against Dartmouth, Jones had a similarly versatile performance with 21 points, seven assists, six steals and five rebounds.
“It used to be like, either I’m scoring today and I’m able to score or I’m having a tough day offensively,” LeBlanc said of Jones. “And now it’s like, you see her bait a defender and then find the one more [pass] or you see her drive and get up in the air and find someone to pass it to if people collapse on her. So her offensive game is definitely developing and it’s evolving for her to be able to find other ways to be an effective part of our offense even without scoring.”
Mauricio, meanwhile, broke her career high in scoring three times in January and won Ivy League Rookie of the Week on Jan. 31 after scoring 24 points and making six of 16 3-point attempts at Cornell. LeBlanc not only didn’t mind her freshman taking that many threes, but even pointed out an opportunity that Mauricio passed up in a film session the following day.
“If she’s allowed to shoot 16 threes, I want her to do that every game,” LeBlanc said. “… Bella for an open three is — I can’t draw anything else up better.”
Despite the standout performances from its backcourt duo, Brown is still seeking the wins to match. The Bears are young, with 10 freshmen and sophomores to just one senior, and four of its conference losses have been by six points or fewer. That includes a Jan. 17 game at Yale in which Brown led by as many as 11 but lost on a layup with 1.4 seconds left.
A team that the Bears might strive to emulate is Columbia, which went 29-54 in head coach Megan Griffith’s first three seasons before improving to 17-10 in 2019-20 and 17-4 this season. Griffith herself made that comparison recently and identified some positives for the Bears:
“I think they play with a lot of toughness and … every game they play hard. [Even] their warm-ups, there’s so much energy. I think they’re just kind of a team that, if [LeBlanc] keeps recruiting the right way and … stays bought into what her vision is, I think that’s the beginning of a good program, and I see that in them, just the way they carry themselves.”
If they continue their upward trajectory, Mauricio and Jones could be sparkplugs for Brown’s renaissance. Mauricio wants to reduce her 2.3 turnovers per game and improve at “making the big plays and stepping up to the moment,” while Jones zeroed in on her midrange and 3-point shooting.
Neither shot has been a big part of Jones’ game to date — in fact, she has hit just three shots outside of 10 feet this season. But LeBlanc and her staff think it’s only a matter of time before Jones is a three-level scorer, which will then give her more space to drive. “We see her shoot every day at practice. She makes threes,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc expects Jones’ shot to improve with continued time in the gym and several of Mauricio’s weaknesses to dissipate with experience. For example, Mauricio will likely commit fewer turnovers as she learns to take her time making decisions offensively and improve defensively as she gets more reps in Brown’s zone.
Another area of growth for Mauricio, LeBlanc said, is using her natural leadership qualities to “bring her teammates along” and help them match her work ethic. There is a synergy here: If Mauricio gets her teammates in the gym often enough that they all need voicemail messages like hers, that can only help Jones’ shot.
And Mauricio seems ready to embrace that role. “I’m excited that the whole team is young,” she said. “I think it’s a lot of opportunities for growth … I’m just excited to keep seeing where we can go in the next few years.”
By the end of their careers, Mauricio and Jones have the potential to be All-Ivy players and leaders on an Ivy League Tournament team. But Mauricio is aiming even higher: Since she was five years old, she has dreamed of making the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
Last March, that dream felt closer than ever. While watching the tournament on television, the soon-to-be college freshman couldn’t help herself from leaving LeBlanc a voicemail:
“Coach Mo, we need to make it to March Madness. We need to.”
If they pull that off, it’s safe to say that the world will know a lot of players’ names on Brown — starting with Bella Mauricio and Kyla Jones.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.