The UCLA media guide states that forward Jasmine Dixon’s favorite pro athlete is Allen Iverson and she wasted no time demonstrating an Iverson-like mentality in UCLA’s 68-63 victory over the University of Washington.
With less than a full shot clock elapsed in the game, the stocky 5’10" forward missed a jumper from the right elbow, got the ball back off an offensive rebound, and went up strong against 6’3" Washington forward Mackenzie Argens, drawing the foul and earning two free throws. Walking to the free throw line unfazed by the contact with a player 5 inches taller, she knocked down the first two points of the game from the charity stripe.
Less than 30 seconds later, she slapped the ball loudly as she grabbed a defensive rebound and initiated the fast break, finding freshman guard Mariah Williams streaking up court for an easy fast break layup, quickly helping UCLA to a 4-0 lead.
With 16:59 left, she got a pass from Williams at the right elbow and paused to size up a challenge from Argens in a different context. After the brief evaluative moment, she decisively drove to the basket with one strong dribble, not as much getting by the taller Argens as simply overpowering her at the basket to make a short contested jumper in the lane. After a jumper by forward Erica Tukiainen facilitated by a swing pass from Dixon, UCLA took their biggest lead of the first half, 8-2.
To say that Dixon dominated the game start to finish would be an overstatement – Washington went into the half with a 30-28 lead. But Dixon set the tone early and re-established it often as she scored a career-high 25 points on 9-14 shooting to go with a game-high 9 rebounds. As illustrated by the first 3 offensive plays she made, she is a player that can predictably beat opponents in multiple ways with a singular mentality even if they know it’s coming.
"We knew it," said Washington coach Tia Jackson. "She just made some tough baskets. It wasn’t like they weren’t contested looks. They were tough baskets to make. But again, they were right around the rim."
There were no three pointers, pull-up 15 footers, or fancy displays of open court dribbling. Time and time again, Dixon just got the ball, patiently determined how to breakdown her defender, and decisively got herself to the rim. She's a multi-talented player who wasted no movement once in the paint, using creative footwork to either overpower defenders or draw fouls.
Perhaps her mentality is best represented by a run-capping basket late in the game.
With 1:48 left in the second half, she just got the ball in the post, faced up on 6’2" Washington forward Mollie Williams and got a shot to the rim while getting the ball around Williams’ outstretched arms as though it didn’t even matter that a taller obstacle was in front of her. As she went to the line to make 1 of 2 free throws that capped a late 7-0 run to break the game’s 8th tie, Williams took her place on the lane with a look of surprised disappointment – it’s hard to imagine how to stop a player that almost pretends defenders aren’t there.
"Dixon brings intensity," said UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell. "She is a tough, tough player. Although she is undersized inside, she plays so much bigger than what she is. She gives us that go-to: when we need a basket we’re looking to run action to put the ball in her hand…she’ll bang in there with anybody, she takes any post assignment we give her. So we’re really pleased with what Jasmine has been able to give to us."
As Caldwell said, what the Rutgers University transfer brings is an intensity, toughness, and calculated fearlessness that prevents her from slipping into reckless abandon and allows her to almost singlehandedly will her team to victory when they need baskets most. It’s almost as though it never occurs to her that her size might be a barrier, demonstrating an almost total disregard for the disadvantages she has against would-be challengers.
She expects to be better – perhaps twice as good – as anyone who stands to challenge her.
"When I was younger, I liked number 3, but it wasn’t available because another girl had it," says Dixon, as quoted in the UCLA media guide. "My coach told me to get #33 because I could be twice as nice as the girl who had number 3. So I stuck with it, having the same mentality."
Coincidentally, the story of how she chose her number serves as an almost-too-convenient allegory for how she plays: an Iverson mentality with her own unique spin that gives her an unwavering confidence in the face of challenge.
In writing about Iverson this past November after he officially cut ties with the Memphis Grizzlies, Bethlehem Shoals described his significance as follows.
freedarko.com: In This Hour of Totality
Allen Iverson was, and still is, heaven or the great below. He shakes basketball to its very foundations or, according to some, is foolish enough to think he can. He changed the game, though not necessarily for the better.
Obviously, Dixon is not the same kind of transcendent or era-defining athlete that Iverson is. And certainly no normal human being may ever possess Iverson’s lightening quickness. Nevertheless, Dixon similarly represents a challenge to mainstream common sense about women’s basketball. It’s an Iverson mentality applied to the women’s game in a way that we might have been shocked by in 1996.
Champions of women’s basketball, including UCLA legend John Wooden, have touted women’s basketball as beautiful in its glorification of fundamentals in comparison to the men’s game, which has been dominated by unstoppable athleticism and physicality that occasionally makes players with no discernable skill valuable in the trenches. Yet Dixon represents something that people rarely expect from female athletes: a combination of skillful creativity and the disciplined use of power, with any finesse or strict adherence to fundamentals seemingly an after-thought.
It’s not even that she’s the only women’s basketball player to exhibit this physical style of play – she is undoubtedly representative of a steady shift in how women’s basketball is played. The competitive spirit she exhibits in imposing her will on the game is not new either -- it's far more understated than a player like WNBA MVP Diana Taurasi, who undoubtedly made an impression on the basketball world in 2009. However, it’s the fusion of the fearless attitude and the style of play in an undersized package that seems to create resonance with the notion of an "Iverson mentality", if only on the court.
Perhaps lost in the power and intensity is those moments of calm in which she patiently sizes up opponents. It’s not the seemingly frantic blur that we expected from Iverson, but a cerebral patience in evaluating a situation as though she’s in complete control, protected from an unnecessary sense of urgency by the security of believing that she can enact what she envisions. And yet perhaps it’s not quite as much a departure as we might at first assume.
"Allen took psychocybernetics to a new level," [high school athletic director] Kozlowski recalls. Today, Iverson doesn't like to talk about how he does what he does on the basketball court. "I just do it," he says. Partially, like any artist, he is wary of overanalyzing his gift. But it could also be that he's known since high school that the real explanation defies easy answers, that the answer is, at heart, both beneath and above the level of language, and connected, on some level, to his psyche.
However, almost as a reminder that women’s is a substantially different style of play with similar foundational principles that perhaps become more visible within the more deliberate unfolding of events, Dixon does it all within the flow of her team’s offense, rather than requiring the team to adjust to her. Dominant and powerful, yet not alienating or polarizing. "Heart personified", while not being overbearing.
As such, she is far more a basketball role model whereas Iverson stands alone as something of an anomaly that cannot be imitated in his entirety.
"I just wish that other bigs would get that same type of mentality that she has, especially with us having freshmen in Markel," said Caldwell. "We think she’s got a great role model to look after with how Dixon plays."
It will be fun to watch what kind of imprint she makes on her team.
- In communicating briefly about this post with Bethlehem Shoals, he asked how another #3 – Dwyane Wade -- fits into this model. In a sense, her mentality is more Wade than Iverson in that she does not necessarily need to be the center of attention to be effective and for that matter, her game might even be enhanced next to more talented players rather than muted.
- Caldwell chatted briefly after the game about how her college coach, Pat Summit, influenced her as a coach. She mentioned that Summit and Wooden have "a lot of similarities". It’s an interesting point that has actually been taken up before by Prof. Michael P. Sheridan in an academic analysis of the similarities in these two legends’ coaching styles. The similarity that he found based on observation and video from the 2004-05 season is interesting:
Pat Summitt and John Wooden…Comparing and Contrasting Two Coaching Legends | Podium Sports Journal
The authors concluded that the majority of Summitt’s behaviors were instructional, positive, and hustle-oriented, designed to make practices simulate the intensity of game situations.
Perhaps more interesting: Candace Parker was at the University of Tennessee but took a medical redshirt. However, I wonder if Sheridan caught any footage of Parker and Summit interacting and how Summit treated the young superstar.