Jordin Canada is 5 foot 6.
Sue Bird is 5 foot 9.
Canada is in the second year of her professional career. While Bird, a three-time WNBA champion and 11-time All-Star, is in her 17th year in the WNBA.
Yet, it was Canada who was doing the postgame interview with ESPN, signing autographs — including one for Sonics legend Slick Watts — high-fiving fans and getting a roar of cheers after Seattle’s 84-74 playoff-opening victory over Minnesota.
Bird has been out this season nursing a knee injury, but the postgame hoopla surrounding the Storm’s point guard was awfully familiar. It’s likely to be a common sight again.
Canada’s breakout season makes it clear that while she won’t ever be able to completely replace the future Hall of Famer, Seattle will be set at the point guard position after Bird eventually retires.
Without star teammates like Bird and Breanna Stewart this season, Canada has stepped up to help propel the team to its third consecutive playoff berth. Her 26-point barrage — a career high — on Wednesday night helped launch Seattle into the second round against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday.
“I think it’s real important that this particular season we had to identify a new identity, and I think she is a prime example of that new identity,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said.
In the fourth game of the semifinal playoff series last season against Phoenix, Bird went out in the second quarter with a broken nose, causing Canada to play for the remainder of the game. She played 24 minutes (eight more than her average that season) and put up four rebounds, four assists and nine points.
While the team dropped the game, Canada had a newfound sense of confidence. She rose to the occasion when her team needed her most and was determined to bring that energy into the following season.
“This year, I was just trying to improve,” Canada said. “Be aggressive. Be a defensive spark. Bring something to the team more than just being able to create. Just being that spark, bringing my confidence back.”
The opportunity for increased minutes came again this year as Bird underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee in May, sidelining her for the season. When the season opened just four days after news of Bird’s injury, it was Canada leading the Storm and directing the offense.
“To hear the news that Sue wasn’t going to be playing the majority of the season and knowing that I would have to step up, I just wanted to step up in a big way, just improve and grow,” Canada said.
The former No. 5 choice out of UCLA has started in all but one of her 30 appearances this season. She’s set career-highs with the increased playing time, averaging 28.8 minutes per game, 9.8 points, 5.8 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals.
On July 12, when the Storm played Dallas at home, she dished out a career-high 12 assists without committing a turnover — which marks the second-most assists dished without a turnover in team history (Bird owns the record with 13).
Defensively, she’s put up arguably even better numbers, with a league-leading 2.3 steals per game in the regular season. Her 68 steals are second only to teammate and defensive player of the year Natasha Howard (74). Both Canada and Howard were named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive team.
“When she pushes, she’s very intense,” Storm guard Jewell Loyd said. “She’s definitely not afraid of any contact. She’s super competitive. That is something that was different from last year in a sense where now she gets going there and she’s not forcing things. She fills her role on this team.”
While Bird has established herself as one of the game’s best scorers and playmakers, Canada’s lockdown defense separates herself from Bird, who averages just 1.3 steals per game.
“You’re lacking one of the best, if not the best, shot-makers in our game with Sue, but what you get on the other side is Jordin’s activity defensively,” Hughes said. “She creates pressure and deflections and all of those types of things.”
In fact, separating herself from Bird and all the expectations, is the advice the 17-year veteran has given Canada all season long.
“Ever since last year, the main thing that she’s taught me is don’t focus so much on trying to be her, try to be me and not worry about expectations of ‘What’s Jordin going to do to replace Sue,’” Canada said. “Just continuing to play my game because we’re two different players. Although she’s one of the best to ever do it, just listening to that advice allows me to be free and allows me to play freely and play my game and not worry so much about whatever I have to do to play like Sue.”
While the Storm continues to try to defend its 2018 championship, Canada’s breakout season leads to the question: What happens next season when Bird returns? For Canada, and the Storm, it’s a good problem to have. She understands her role on the team is more than minutes counted or games started.
“We’re trying to be a great basketball team,” she said. “We’re already great now, but to add Sue and Stewie to that roster again, it’s just going to be great. It’s just going to be like my first year playing for this team. I’m just excited to see them get back and get healthy.”