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Derrick Jones Jr., 6-foot-7, 197 pounds, had a plan. A plan to get to the NBA.
Two years ago he was a high school senior and basketball star in Chester, Pennsylvania. At that point, the plan was to spend an extra year at a prep school before enrolling in college. He visited St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, and, while he was there, he took advantage of the opportunity to take the ACT, an alternative to the SAT. An acceptable grade on either test would make Jones eligible for a Division I athletic scholarship.
"I studied for it for months," Jones says. "And I felt I was ready to take the test. I went in. I took a deep breath, prayed to God before I took the test. It was a nail-biter. I was like pulling my hair out, just waiting for them test results. And when my dad told me I got the test results back, I didn’t want to look at it first. I wanted my parents to look at it.
"When my dad looked at the email and saw that I got the right score that I needed, I mean, he just broke down. My mom broke down in tears. I was my parents’ first child to go to college. And it was a blessing. I was thankful for that."
Short Stay At UNLV
Jones scored a 27 on the test, higher than he needed. He figured he was home free. So he altered the plan, skipped prep school and went straight to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. As a freshman, he maintained a GPA of 3.25 and averaged over 11 points per game.
The dream of an NBA debut might have beckoned Jones then, but he felt he’d be better prepared for the pros when he’d put a couple more years’ worth of muscle on his lanky 6-foot-7 frame. And, besides, he was happy.
"I loved UNLV," Jones says. "It was like my second home. I’m always gonna be a Runnin’ Rebel."
"Always a Runnin’ Rebel," maybe. But not as a sophomore. Suspicions had arisen regarding the scores of some of the athletes who’d taken the ACT with Jones at St. Frances Academy. Toward the end of his freshman basketball season, Jones was told that UNLV would have to enter the conference tournament without him.
"They actually emailed me, and they said they were gonna flag my scores," Jones says. "I didn’t understand it, and I took it to my coach, and that’s when they told me I was ineligible and I wasn’t able to play anymore. I mean, nobody really understood why they did it, because I took the test. I got the score that I needed and, I mean, I got higher than the score that I needed. So I really didn’t understand what the whole situation was for."
Jones would not be allowed to continue at UNLV or at any other Division I school. He made himself available for the NBA draft as a 19-year-old.
"We thought I was gonna get drafted," Jones says. "And my parents threw like a little party for me. All my friends was there. All my family was there. I mean, all the people that was close to me was all there. As soon as they got up to like [pick] 15 or 20, I just stepped outside. I couldn’t watch it anymore."
Undrafted, But NBA Bound
Regarding Derrick Jones, there was nothing to watch. No NBA team drafted him. Like all hopefuls who come up empty on draft night, he became a free agent, free to sign with any team that was interested in seeing him play in summer camp.
The Sacramento Kings took that chance, but an injury prevented Jones from playing at all.
"I’m gonna be one of the hardest workers that the Phoenix Suns ever seen."Derrick Jones Jr.
And then the Phoenix Suns looked beyond Jones’ injury and beyond his scarlet “U” for undrafted, and they signed him to a preseason contract in September. Jones grabbed the opportunity with both hands and held on hard, hoping to make the opening night roster.
"It was the day of cuts, and they called me into the office," Jones says. "And they asked me if I knew what I was in there for. And I told them I didn’t. I knew it was the day that they had to make cuts, but I didn’t know what was going to happen."
What happened was that the Suns signed Jones to an NBA contract. Mission accomplished, right? Not quite. A few days later, he was assigned to the Northern Arizona Suns, Phoenix’s developmental — or D-League — affiliate. So, he had to be disappointed, right? With all the things that had gone wrong with the plan Jones had made, this had to be one more nasty surprise, the sort of thing bound to turn a young man bitter and sulky. Except…
"I just went down there and I embraced it," Jones says. "And I’m gonna be one of the hardest workers that the Phoenix Suns ever seen."
"Derrick did have a great attitude about being in the D-League," Northern Arizona coach Ty Ellis says. "And it’s very uncommon, unfortunately. These young kids, or young men, they assume the D-League is a demotion. And it’s not. The D-League is a perfect opportunity for you to grow and also stake your claim that you belong in the NBA."
Jones says he’s OK with playing in the D-League for as long as it takes to learn the basketball he didn’t learn in college. Coach Ellis agrees.
"Absolutely. Absolutely. The only difference is at this level, it’s all about basketball," Ellis says. "You don’t have to worry about school and grades and studying and things of that nature."
Fortunately, for Derrick Jones, it’s only 100 miles from the Prescott Valley Events Center (where the Northern Arizona Suns do business) to the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix (home of the NBA Suns), because Jones has shuttled back and forth between the two venues more than half a dozen times this season. As an on-again/off-again NBA player, he dunked well enough to be invited last month to the NBA Slam Dunk Contest during the All-Star break. He finished second. Coach Ellis was among the unsurprised.
"Everybody is so excited about his athletic ability when he dunks — and rightfully so," Ellis says. "But there was a game against Sioux Falls, and we was playing against Briante Weber. He’s in the NBA now with Charlotte, and he’s a point guard. And Briante was having a good game against us, and Derrick asked me if he could guard him. I said, 'Yeah. You know, I want you to take that challenge.' And he did a phenomenal job on him. And Derrick picked him up full court and just got us back into the game. So that particular game, I’m like, 'This kid can be special.'"
"Special" might seem easy praise. Who among players good or nearly good enough to make the NBA isn’t “special?” But consider the route Derrick Jones Jr. had to take to earn that distinction, particularly the detours. According to Ty Ellis, all that adversity has helped build a player more prepared for the NBA than he’d otherwise have been.
"Derrick is maturing," Ellis says. "And I give him so much credit. Because when I was 19, I was a sophomore knucklehead in college. And this guy has so much pressure. And I think he is doing a phenomenal job of handling it."
When you’re playing with and against the greatest basketball players in the world — except on the nights when you’re playing with and against the guys who are trying to earn or regain the right to make that claim — maturing is a fine thing to be doing. But if you’re Derrick Jones Jr. even as you mature, you don’t want to lose the enthusiasm that has taken you so far.
"I want to be the Defensive Player of the Year as many times as I can," Jones says. "I’m gonna be that defender and hopefully I’ll be able to contribute on the defensive end to win championships."
Hmm. Seems as if the enthusiasm is still there, nor is confidence likely to be a problem.
This segment aired on March 18, 2017.