Garrett Billings firmly established himself as one of the game’s elite players last season. He set an NLL assist record with 82 helpers and finished second in league scoring, tying John Tavares’ former NLL record of 114 points in a season. The Toronto Rock forward — who set a team record with 15 points in a March game against Buffalo — has elevated himself above teammate Josh Sanderson and Rochester’s Dan Dawson as the best set-up man in the league right now. The soon to be 27-year-old (his birthday is Feb. 4) is also a legit scorer, dropping more than 30 goals in all three of his NLL seasons. So I had to ask — does he feel pressure on the floor to shoot more or pass more?
It’s a no-win situation for many of the league’s best players. You either get heat like Dan Dawson for passing too much and not shooting enough, or get criticized like Billings’ Langley Thunder summer teammate and Stealth sniper Lewis Ratcliff for shooting too much, seemingly not passing enough (which really isn’t the case at all).
Billings said it’s a no-brainer for him.
“It’s funny — I want to score goals first and foremost. I wish I could score them like Lewis,” said Billings. “Honestly, if you could see me in practice, I’m bombing from the outside the whole time. I just want to score goals. Luckily it works for me I can find guys, as well, on the backside or cutting through the middle. So, honestly, I wish I could score like Lewis Ratcliff. I can’t and it is what it is.”
Many pundits — this one included — would disagree with that self assessment. Heading into his fourth NLL season with 96 goals in 47 regular season games, Billings has a great chance to score 50 in a season anytime. He has an incredible outside shot — both sidearm and overhand — and what makes him unique is his ability to shot from the outside on the run with incredible accuracy. It was a skill he polished playing attack at the University of Virginia, but he’s had a lifelong dedication and focus to honing his shot.
“It’s just practice,” said Billings. “My whole approach to lacrosse my entire life is that repetition would get me to where I wanted to be. We’re lucky enough in Langley (where he grew up) to have a few nice lacrosse boxes. All summer I’d go out after practice and just shoot. Repetition and just shoot hundreds of lacrosse balls and try to pick that corner or try to pick the near side. I think it paid off over the years going to school and now playing for the Rock.”
Paid off, indeed. Billings is the odds-on favourite among players not named John Grant Jr. to win the league scoring title this season. Following his 2012 NLL campaign, he scored seven goals and 30 points in six regular-season games with the Thunder and then chipped in 12 goals and 51 assists in 15 playoff games during Langley’s playoff run than ended with a Mann Cup loss to Junior’s Peterborough Lakers.
With so many eyes looking his way this NLL season, Billings admits it can be tough not to sweat too much with the spotlight shining so brightly on him.
“I’ve been trying not to put too much pressure on myself for this year, but there’s definitely a little more hype and people talking this year than in year’s past,” said Billings. “Hopefully I don’t disappoint.”
The Rock open the season this weekend with a two-game road swing through Alberta, playing the Roughnecks Saturday night and the Rush Sunday. Nothing like travelling across the country to play the No.-1 ranked team heading into the season and then following up by meeting the team that lost in the Champion’s Cup final last year.
“Playing them and then Edmonton the next day has to be the toughest way to open the season,” said Billings. “The strength of those two teams — and playing them back-to-back — is a tough way to start the year and a good measuring stick, I guess.”
Always the optimist. However, Billings admits being upbeat about lacrosse right now isn’t tough given how well he’s playing and how much he enjoys being a member of the Rock.
“I think the situation in Toronto right now — as a professional athlete — I don’t think you could ask for more,” he said. “It’s great lacrosse market and people know what is going on with the Toronto Rock. You know, I’m sitting right now in the executive seating in our practice facility overlooking our floor — you know, it’s pretty easy being a Toronto Rock right now. I try not to take that for granted. I realize I’m pretty lucky at this stage of my career to be where I am.”
Even more impressive than the Stealth’s win opening night against the K-Hawls was the crowd that was just north of 7,000 people. That’s an incredible feat to see that many butts in the stands in Everett, no matter who paid for the tickets … You could definitely tell it was the first game of the season Saturday night. I lost count of how many outside blasts missed the net. Worse yet was how many outside blasts hit the goalies dead square in the chest pads … Jeff Moleski is easily the most underrated defender in the history of the league. Guy would be in my top-six all-time … How many points will Grant score in this weekend’s opener? I’m going with the over on six.
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