September 9, 2021 

Jordin Canada doesn’t need to be Sue Bird

But with a reliable three, she could be Seattle's next great star

The heir apparent to Sue Bird: That’s effectively been Jordin Canada’s nickname since the night she was drafted.

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It’s an easy thing to call a high draft pick (No. 5 overall) who starred in college (Wooden Award Finalist, Naismith Award semifinalist, All-American, two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, three-time All-Pac-12) at one of college basketball’s highest-profile programs (UCLA) and sits on the depth chart directly behind arguably the greatest to ever play her position.

But reality rarely conforms to such easy narratives.

“I’m not Sue. We’re two different players, and I’m not going to play like that,” said Canada. “I’m gonna play like me and be confident in my game. Just having her knowledge and seeing her day-in and day-out in practice and games and how she reads the game, how she sees the floor, has been very beneficial for me and my development in this league. And taking what she’s given me and just making it my own and adding it to my game.”

It’s been clear since day one that Canada is a very different player than Bird. Her play as a rookie could be best described by Andrew Callaghan, with a downhill style based off her elite quickness. When Bird missed 2019 with a left knee injury, Canada took the reins as lead point guard, parlaying a league-leading 2.3 steals per game into a first-team All-Defense nod and a third-place finish in Most Improved Player voting.

To put her contributions that year into perspective, the list of player seasons to match her usage rate, steal rate, and foul rate from that season (per Her Hoop Stats):

  • Sheryl Swoopes, three times. That’s it.

The list of players to match or better Canada’s career 19.9% usage, 2.8% STL%, and 2.8% foul rate is exactly the same — just Sheryl Swoopes.

The point is not that Canada’s one of the handful greatest players in the history of the league. Rather, it’s to say that players with her kind of disciplined defensive disruptiveness and ability to effect offense with the ball in her hands don’t come around particularly often.

There’s just a few players in the league who could take Canada’s place in that sequence; probably Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, and, funny enough, Jewell Loyd.

Look through Canada’s film from just the past month, and you’ll find more than a few examples of her in the kind of two-way sequences that suggest stardom.

The list of players that could consistently fill in for Canada in those clips is probably Cloud, Atkins, Loyd, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Betnijah Laney; had Laney played the first five years of her career like she has the last two, that’s a list that could be made up entirely of Hall-of-Famers. At worst, it’d be a few Hall-of-Famers and a few perennial All-WNBA players.

Now, despite Canada’s well-deserved reputation as an elite defender, her overall game has never been discussed in the same breath as those players. And for clear reason: for about two-and-a-half years, Jordin Canada’s three-pointer had disappeared.

It’s not like Canada’s long-range shooting was expected to be poor coming out of college; her career mark of 33.2% at UCLA was far from special, but her accuracy improved every year. And she was coming off a senior season in which she shot 38.6% on 3.8 attempts per game. With a 79.4% collegiate FT%, there was reason to be optimistic. But after she shot 22.4% on 22.6% three-point frequency across that first year-and-a-half in the W, she discarded it.

From her freshman year at UCLA through the middle of her second season in Seattle, 17.7% of Canada’s attempts were threes. Per Her Hoop Stats, that’s in the 35th-to-45th-percentile range — nothing exceptional, but far from pedestrian. From then on, Canada’s three-point rate has been 8.1% — around the 20th percentile.

“Honestly, I think it’s just, the talent level is so high in the league, and I think as you come into this league, it was really hard for me — a hard adjustment defensively and offensively,” said Canada. “Even though the stats have gone down, I’m not really worried about that. Coming into this league and playing on this team and the team that we have, my role has completely changed from being at UCLA. So I’m not really focused on stats and trying to score as much as possible… Whatever the defense takes me, and I’ll get it. But other than that, I’m not really focused on what stats; the stats don’t tell the whole story.”

The problem for Canada — and Seattle — is that shooting is the most important basic skill in basketball. Good shooters can fit on any team, but good players who can’t shoot are a tricky proposition. There’s a top-20 player in the MNBA who’s the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, an elite passer, a premier transition threat, and stands 6’10” — and he doesn’t fit on one title contender and only a handful of teams seem to be trying to trade for him. Because he can’t/won’t shoot.

But unlike Ben Simmons and his career 59.7% FT%, there’s clear reasons to think Jordin Canada can be a good shooter: her free-throw percentage since college sits at a solid 79.0%, and has improved every year in the pros; her form is quite solid, and despite a longer load-up, should be more than smooth enough to hit open shots; over the last two seasons, the only distance Canada has shot notably worse than league-average from has been beyond the arc; her midrange shot has gotten significantly better since her rookie year; her jump-shooting accuracy improved each of her first three years (to the point a better shot distribution last year would’ve made it a roughly leave-average offering).

And yet: even with Jordin Canada not shooting jumpers efficiently, she’s an incredibly valuable player. Her 5’10 wingspan allows her to play well above her height, and it shows. Between her combination of on-ball harassment and off-ball intelligence and activity, there aren’t five better backcourt defenders in the entire league.

And Canada’s generally an excellent player in all non-shooting offensive facets. She may not see the correct pass 100% of the time, but she’s a superbly capable pick-and-roll lead, great post-entry passer, and somehow a stellar screener for a guard despite standing 5’6.

Canada’s off-ball movement is consistently great, despite her not being a catch-and-shoot player and having run usage rates above 25% every year in college.

Note how Canada’s movement in the first three clips draws her defender away from the primary ball action and opens a more favorable kick-out angle towards her. And contrast that with the final clip, in which her shooting gravity is not respected by Sky guard Allie Quigley. That allows her to sink-and-fill with Candance Parker to disrupt Loyd’s drive.

With how well Canada moves off-ball, she doesn’t need to shoot 40% from three to be a major boon there. She just needs to make defenses respect her presence to help open the floor.

“To be honest, it’s not about making [open threes],” Bird said. “It’s less about making or taking threes — the amount isn’t isn’t really the point. I can tell how our offense is flowing if I get those opportunities. Because if I am getting those opportunities, it means things are happening within our offense. So like I said, I just stay moving constantly off-the-ball to try to get myself open…

“[Former Seattle head coach] Jenny Boucek, when she was here, she would always say ‘you’re open, but not available.’… Because a lot of times, you might be open, but are you available? And that availability part, that’s the part where you got to move.”

There’s plenty of instances where Canada either couldn’t convert wide open spot-up threes or was altogether turning away open looks just this past month. The attention Breanna Stewart and Loyd draw generates open looks one or two passes away, and while Canada’s open, she’s not “available.”

Imagining a Seattle offense where Canada takes advantage of and converts those looks at a rate approaching league-average isn’t hard. For instance, a couple times in the above video, she has an easily correctable mechanical problem where her feet are moving ahead of her upper body. (I tried shooting like that, and the times I was able to get the ball in spite of the discomfort, I was front-rimming everything too.)

Overall, Canada’s been trying jumpers more of late, and to better effect.

“I think it’s just reading the defense, honestly. If they’re gonna give me the jumper, I want to be confident in taking it,” said Canada. “Like [head coach Noelle Quinn] said, [we’d] been working on it for the past over the Olympic break, and just me having the confidence to shoot it now. So whatever the defense gives me, I try to take, but I’m not going to stop taking jumpers if it’s open.”

The lack of threatening shooting from Canada is apparent. But just as apparent ought to be the impact of her defense, her ability to fit off-ball with the Storm’s Big 3, and the way she’s polished her strengths over the past four years. The clear increase in jumpers since the break should be just as encouraging. It’s true that she’s had the same untapped potential for most of her professional career, but optimism has never been more justified.

If that potential does get tapped, we’re talking about an immediate jump to stardom. And even if it doesn’t, Canada is a player who’s carved a clear and valuable role in the league, one that should afford a good contract somewhere this winter.

Ultimately, Jordin Canada may simply be a Rorschach test. Below are two graphs and a leaderboard.

What kind of player do you see?

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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