On a crowded Suns roster, don’t let Derrick Jones Jr. go under the radar

Sep 30, 2017, 7:01 AM
(Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports)...
(Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports)
(Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns focused on selecting wings in the 2017 NBA Draft, and both of them figured to play a key role in the team’s rotation from the jump.

Josh Jackson’s two-way play at small forward has him penned in as a key long-term piece and four-year college player Davon Reed looked to be headed right for playing time when Brandon Knight tore his ACL, only for Reed to have a significant knee injury as well.

With that, the team traded for Memphis shooting guard Troy Daniels, filling a need as a backup at the position and as a shooter.

With Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Jackson and Daniels on the wing, there’s not much room for second-year player Derrick Jones Jr. That might make Jones an afterthought to some, but his potential makes him anything but that.

Jones, Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams gave the Suns’ second unit new life after the All-Star break and got some incredibly valuable experience to not only get acclimated to NBA basketball, but improve as a player himself.

“I got that experience early (in) a rookie year,” Jones said at the team’s media day Monday.

Jones’ skill set isn’t hard to explain.

He’s one of the bounciest athletes the league has seen this past decade. That, along with a decent nose for the ball, has him consistently involved on both ends of the court, more specifically as a rebounder.

Those hops make Jones an electric finisher who thrives in transition.

What’s next for Jones is taking those athletic gifts and turning them into a signature NBA skill, and the plan has always been defense.

He has the mindset.

“Whoever the best player is that’s who I want to guard,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be out on the floor and not be able to say that I’m not guarding the best player. I want to guard the best player and I want to be that impact that I want to stop the best player on the court and that’s something that I’m gonna take pride in this year.”

With Ulis being one of the smallest players in the league and Jones looking to specialize as a perimeter defender, head coach Earl Watson threw him into the fire, having him guard elite point guards night after night.

That included eventual league MVP Russell Westbrook, who Jones even got mixed up with while performing his full-court antics.

The issue for Jones and for anyone looking to become a great defender on ball-handlers is it isn’t just having the quickest lateral movement. There are little specific ticks, like his footwork, moving his hips and body the right way and there is especially floor sense and court awareness.

When asked what he wants to get better at as a defender, those ticks shine through.

“Being able to keep my man in front of me a lot more and not getting those ticky-tack fouls that I had last year and just being able to focus more on the defensive end whenever screens are coming and getting into the coverages and being able to do everything the right way,” he said.

That’s possibly the most challenging aspect of a rookie season in the NBA, and Jones was not only thrown in right away to rotation minutes but looking to be the best in that area.

“My first game it was kind of tough, it was like a mile a minute,” Jones said. “The game was moving so fast I really couldn’t see the game. It was just moving too fast, and the more I played the game slowed down a lot and I felt more comfortable on the court and my defensive game got 10 times better.”

Growing there is what Jones needs to do to become a certifiable NBA player like Ulis and Williams have, and from the sound of what’s being said at training camp in northern Arizona, he’s doing it.

“A guy who has been most consistent and, to me, most improved has been Derrick Jones,” Watson said Wednesday.

Beyond those niche attributes as a defender, Jones was listed at 190 pounds last season and will need to be much stronger to not get physically overwhelmed by a prototypical NBA wing.

Watson has seen progression there.

“I feel like he got stronger,” Watson said.

The muscle for Jones is crucial, because he’s such a sensational athlete that he has the potential to guard up to four positions, which will, in turn, get him more playing time.

Beyond defense, the make-or-break department for Jones, like most NBA prospects, is shooting, and Jones did not have a three-point shot ready in his rookie year.

In 32 appearances on 17 minutes a game, Jones shot 11 total threes.

It’s a skill that can be improved with loads of hard work, and Jones appears to be putting that in.

Watson noted that Jones’ three-point shooting has been “phenomenal” at the start of camp.

Eric Bledsoe has also seen the growth.

“He looks like the most improved player on the team right now,” Bledsoe told’s Cody Cunningham. “His jumper looks pretty good. This past week he’s been working. He’s impressed me a lot.”

Like P.J. Tucker did through his career in the Valley, if Jones can become an average three-point shooter from the corners, defenses choose to either help off him and let him shoot or stay on him and allow the likes of Bledsoe, Booker, Ulis and Warren to have more space with the ball.

It sounds simple and that’s because it is. If Jones gets that shot down and now he can stay on the floor more to get better as a defender.

If you don’t believe me, take it from the wise veteran Jared Dudley.

“If he can hit that three, he’ll play a lot in the NBA,” Dudley told Cunningham.

Jones said he hasn’t changed a whole lot except focusing on keeping his elbow in.

For what has been said about his jumper, you might be expecting something a little bit ugly, but look at how natural Jones can make his jumper look.

The elbow jumper is his shot, according to Watson, so much so there were even a few plays run for it during the end of last year.

There’s enough of a foundation in his game for Jones to grow into a legitimately good NBA role player, and it’s easy to forget that he’s not turning 21 years old until mid-February.

Like Ulis, Jones was signed to a four-year deal last year with non-guarantees and team options involved. The Suns have him on the right deal to be patient with his development, and it could pay off big-time, both for him and his team.

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On a crowded Suns roster, don’t let Derrick Jones Jr. go under the radar