Countdown to 2015–16: Jessica January makes DePaul go

DePaul coach Doug Bruno calls Jessica January one of the fiercest competitors he’s ever coached. (Photos courtesy of DePaul Athletics)

In addition to excelling in hoops and volleyball, Jessica January was a star track ahlete at Richfield High, in Minnesota. She broke a 16-year-old state record in the 100-meter hurdles, and set Richfield records in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles.

She’d decided to pursue basketball in college, and given her uncanny quickness, a pace-pushing program seemed the perfect fit. Like, DePaul. January liked the philosophy practiced by Blue Demons coach Doug Bruno. “I wanted a running team,” she says, succinctly.

Few fit the bill more earnestly than Bruno. In ‘14–15, the Blue Demons averaged 86.0 points, second-best in DI. Per game, their 19.4 assists ranked third nationally; their three-point field goals(10.4) and steals (12.3): second.

That’s exactly what January was looking for. Then, the crash course in the fitness needed to make it go. January remembers marveling at the first workouts, ahead of her freshman season. She was running more than she ever did in track. “I thought I’d wanted a running team,” January says now, chuckling.

Those were some of the only hiccups January experienced in her first year at DePaul. When asked about her freshman season, Bruno uses “tough” three times in a sentence — but in a good way. “Jessica is one of the most competitive players I’ve coached,” says Bruno. “She’s also one of the smartest. When you’re an ultra-competitor, you can put yourself in a position to overcome the freshman overload. You simply out-compete it. That’s what put her on the floor as a freshman.”

As the first player off the bench — Bruno considered her the “sixth starter” — January averaged 23.1 minutes and 9.1 points for a team that won 29 games and reached the Sweet 16.

She could create her own shot every time down the court, or filter down into the low post. Mid-range pull-up jump shots, knocking down threes. With so many potential paths to take, sometimes January went too fast for her own good. “Jess is so quick and athletic, sometimes she needs to slow down a little bit,” says Bruno. “She rushes some shots. She’s gotten a lot better, she takes her time now, and that just comes with experience. It’s not even improvement — it’s just your game catching up with your natural ability.”

Progression is always easier when you’ve got serious smarts. January carried a 4.6 GPA in high school, and is now double-majoring in public relations and advertising. (She also has a minor in mathematical sciences.)

“Even after I got a feel for the pace of the game at the DI level, coach Bruno told me I needed to take a step back,” January says. She began to see how synchronizing with the four teammates on the court at a given time was key to making DePaul tick. In the press package, if she pushed a ballhandler into a tight pocket, she could help her teammate get a steal.

This is what makes DePaul so much fun to watch. Blinding pace, and the right players to run it. There are few minds more attuned to the pulse of the women’s game than Bruno, and he realized that if you’re not going to get the future pros now filtering through Notre Dame, Duke, or UConn, you have to find a system that keeps you competitive. “We’re in a long-term battle to get people to watch women’s basketball,” says Bruno. “It’s important to find a system that people want to watch. That’s why we play the way we play.”

Listed at 5–7 (January says she’s 5–6), January knows that since DePaul never boasts too much height, guards have gotta board. Good thing grit has always gone alongside her game. “In every sport I played, I was always the shortest and the skinniest,” she says. “My mentality was to work as hard as I could, compete, and do my best. That was my edge, and it was really fun.”

It’s hard to pin exactly what makes January such a force, in large part because she has a hand in so many different realms. Her impact might mean scoring one game, grabbing assists the next. January says she doesn’t block shots, but she gets her fair share of steals, and rebounds. “Whatever I can do to help,” she says.

In ‘14–15, that meant starting all 35 games, and averaging 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.2 steals.

When January hosts recruits, she thinks back to what brought her to DePaul. In Chicago, there is always something to do. Trying out new restaurants, heading down to Michigan Avenue, laying out by the beach. There’s the support: over 17 games last season, DePaul averaged 2,860 fans.

And then, the name drop: “Doug Bruno,” January says. “That’s really all you need to say to a recruit. We might not have the facilities of some of the bigger schools, but at the end of the day, you’re on the court, playing with people. That’s all you really need.”

There’s always been something precocious about her. Stealing the show as a freshman. Now, as a junior, crafting recruiting pitches that would impress a seasoned coach. This will be another fun year of DePaul ball, in large part because of a 5–6 blur. Catch her while you can.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops