Undrafted rookie Derrick Jones Jr. cherishes his opportunity with the Suns
PHOENIX — A day after the Suns cut three of his fellow training camp invitees, undrafted rookie Derrick Jones Jr. stretched an individual workout as long as he could before he needed to hop on Phoenix’s team bus to the aiport.
It’s not surprising considering the circumstances.
Jones, along with John Jenkins, is one of two non-guaranteed players remaining on a 16-man roster that must be cut to 15 by the regular season.
“It’s just another opportunity that I get,” Jones said after practice. “Opportunities, they don’t come a lot so I got to take advantage of the opportunity I got.”
Knowing his past, it’s clear those words have more meaning coming out of Jones’ mouth.
The 19-year-old played 30 games at UNLV before the NCAA pulled his eligibility in early March of last season. Jones’ ACT, which he said he only took once to earn a passing score at a Baltimore testing center, was red-flagged before the season. An investigation led to his score being canceled when the ACT ruled it showed inconsistency with other, unspecific “academic certification data.” What the ACT score was inconsistent with was not released or reported at the time, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
Jones told ESPN he never spoke to the NCAA or anyone from the ACT about the investigation, and his attorney told ESPN the investigation, which included others at the same testing facility, had a “racial motivation.”
In any case, the result was that Jones’ college career was finished three games short of the regular-season finale.
“Of course it hurt me a lot,” he said. “I loved my team, I loved being there. I felt that was a school I would become a better player, a better person, a better man. It got cut short. That’s just something I had to battle through.”
Jones averaged 11.5 points, shot 58 percent to go with 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He only cracked double-digits against Power 5 conference schools once, scoring 12 points against Arizona on Dec. 19.
But Jones closed his UNLV career with two of his best outings — a 25-point, 7-rebound, 4-block game at Boise State and a 23-point, 9-rebound, 4-steal outing against Wyoming.
The 6-foot-7, 190-pound forward showed raw ball-handling skills and a rickety jumper his freshman season before declaring for the NBA Draft. During shooting drills Tuesday, he looked comfortable making catch-and-shoot moves with one or two dribbles and his jumper initially looks silky-smooth. But during the season, it was inconsistent in form, according to DraftExpress’ Josh Riddell.
“My offensive game has got to get better,” Jones said.
Nearly 20 percent of Jones’ offensive possessions at UNLV were in transition, according to Synergy Sports Tech, and that’s where his freakish athleticism took over.
With a 7-foot wingspan and 42.5-inch max vertical, Jones’ profile grew in high school as a dunking legend out of Arch Bishop Carroll High School in Pennsylvania, where he grew up in the basketball-rich community that produced Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans and former Arizona Wildcat and current Brooklyn Net Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who’s known Jones since Jones was 6 years old
“That’s my boy,” Jones said of Hollis-Jefferson. “He just tells me what I need to do. He told me, since I left college after one year, everybody knows I got to get my body stronger. He’s just telling me, that’s going to come a long way — my body, it’s going to come within time. He just told me I have to come out there and play hard.”
What can come sooner is what should help Jones challenge for a roster spot his rookie season.
Pulled aside after his workout by Earl Watson and Suns staffers after practice Tuesday, Jones listened intently as the Suns coach spoke.
“He was just talking to me about the defense and telling me I have to be a lock-down defender to make the team,” Jones said. “It’s words from the head coach, and I’ma take them and I’m going to do what they need me to do.
“I feel I can impact the game defensively. Got to lock down on defense, no gambling.”
It remains to be seen if the Suns could fit Jones into their current makeup on the wing, where P.J. Tucker, T.J. Warren, Jared Dudley and Dragan Bender will eat up minutes. Phoenix, however, also doesn’t exactly have a dire need for Jenkins at guard.
The reality of the situation is that Jones, who looks up to fellow-lefty James Harden on offense and Kawhi Leonard on defense, could be cut in the next few weeks.
If that happens, he could land with the Suns’ D-League squad, a likely possibility considering Phoenix gave him a four-year contract with only $42,500 in guarantees, per Basketball Insiders.
The guaranteed money is more than the Suns gave the fellow training camp invitees waived Monday.
As little change as it is for a pro basketball player, it represents an opportunity to hoop for a living, one Jones probably cherishes more than most.