Suns’ Derrick Jones oozes potential

Feb 15, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. greets fans following the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Lakers 137-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 15, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. greets fans following the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Lakers 137-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Upside and potential are ideals which see NBA general managers fired often. Drafting young men who are age 19-22 is a tricky proposition, because while there are numerous draft models and projections, there is no definitive guarantee of what any one player will become.

Innate, unteachable skills — like athleticism — often catch the eyes of adoring fans and executives alike, and for good reason. Shooting, dribbling and for the most part offensive and defensive awareness are all skills which can be taught — fast-twitch athleticism is not. Sure, players can improve their quickness, endurance and strength, however a player with Kendall Marshall’s athleticism will never morph into a player with Russell Westbrook’s explosiveness.

In Derrick Jones Jr., the Phoenix Suns have found their vessel to mold. His fundamental skills are not elite, but his lateral movement, quick speed bursts, long strides and pogo stick-like jumping abilities are at the top of the charts.

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Jones played one season at UNLV averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 21.5 minutes per game. After 30 games the NCAA ruled Jones ineligible and rather than dealing with them, he pushed forward toward the NBA. He went undrafted in June’s NBA Draft, but the Phoenix Suns — the new home for the youngest potential in the league — came calling and signed Jones to a four-year partially guaranteed deal worth $3.6 million.

Nobody expected Jones to garner NBA minutes as a rookie. Hell, he just turned 20-years-old this month and the team has minutes to dole out to other, higher profile rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. He’s appeared in eight games for the Suns playing a total of 38 minutes, however he’s honing his craft with the Suns’ D-League affiliate in Northern Arizona almost nightly.

The Step Back spoke to NAZ Suns head coach Ty Ellis about Jones and he said, “The focus coming in was for him to understand pro basketball. Understand how to be a pro. We are teaching him about hard work and a diligent work ethic.” Ellis also reiterated they have not seen issues with these specific areas, however as a 19-year-old (now 20) coming into the NBA certain aspects need adjusting.

Ellis continued his thought on the focus for Jones saying, “We are preparing him for what coach Watson needs. We believe he can be a 3-and-D guy who at 6-foot-7, with a 7-foot wingspan, can defend multiple positions and hit the outside shot.”

As a college freshman Jones hit a mere 20.5 percent (8-of-39) of his 3s, so perhaps the idea of him transitioning to a 3-point threat is wishful thinking. However, though slight, there have already been improvements in his outside consistency this season. Jones has played 18 games in the NBADL and has seen the standard ups and downs of a rookie trying to find his footing in the professional game.

The initial shock of Jones’ athleticism is what I imagine a defibrillator feeling like — just a charge of energy kick-starting anyone in its wake back to life.

He accelerates through the air the ferocity of a young Vince Carter and he’s easily one of the most athletic players in the NBA. This is just one of many mind-boggling dunks he’s displayed while donning a Northern Arizona uni this season.

But what else can this young man do? He’s certainly been able to flash his exponential potential and moving forward the focus will be on turning those short flashes into bright shining flood lights.

Through his 18 games in the D-League this year he’s averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks and under one assist (0.9) per game. He’s knocking down 49.2 percent of his shots, 26.1 percent from 3-point range and only 62 percent of his free throws. Not exactly the kind of efficiency — especially from the charity stripe — you want from a future 3-and-D option. However, he’s working out the kinks and developing consistent habits along the way.

Here he shows his ability to use a pin-down screen, gather himself off the catch and rise up for a nice 18-footer. The footwork here is important, because he’s immediately in position to catch and shoot, or if the defender was closer to him he could go right into a triple threat position. The mechanics on his jump shot are solid with his elbow in, and he’s able to place the ball right into the shooting pocket without any wasted motion.

This might be the most impressive 2-point jump shot for Jones this entire season. He dribbles up court, keeping his head on a swivel, sees the defender back up and pulls up for a fluid, under control jump shot. He’s only taken five PUJITs all season (2-for-5) but the fact he’s comfortable taking this shot is key.

So far this season he has really struggled on 2-point jump shots only making 8-of-39 (20.5 percent) attempts. As a freshman at UNLV he hit 40 percent of his 2-point jump shots, so this may be an aberration, but nonetheless is disconcerting. Part of the problem is a lack of consistency in his mechanics as coach Ellis told us, “His release was inconsistent when he got here, so we’re focusing on a consistent release point. At the same time that release point has to be comfortable for him or it won’t work.”

Jones has also displayed an ability to hit pull-up jump shots:

As he takes the hand-off from Johnny O’Bryant III, he rejects the screen and uses his quickness to get an open look off a one dribble pull up. All is well because the shot goes in, but his legs separate a bit too much and he does not completely finish his release, opting for a push motion instead. These are small, nitpicking points, but mastering the minute details will help in the long run.

Here’s another shot off the dribble:

He definitely has a habit of pulling his hands back on his pull up jumpers, instead of holding his motion to completion.

The previous two shots were earlier in the season and the following move was done within the last two weeks. He shows great patience in waiting for his teammate to set a solid screen, freeing him for an open look.

This time he completes his release and the entire motion simply looks more fluid, from start to finish. At 6-foot-7 with endless athleticism, Jones will be able to get his shot off against most defenders, but until he can fine tune all his little quirks, he won’t be consistent enough to be reliable from mid-range.

Another factor for a guy who jumps with the explosion Jones does is jumping the same height on each and every jump shot. Coach Ellis had a great metaphor for shooting, “A jump shot is like a golf swing. People think it’s easy, but it takes a lot of time and tinkering to be perfect. The release point, height of jump, shooting motion and many other factors all have to be working at the same time. We teach all of our players to be consistent in everything they do, that’s the key.”

As Jones extends his range out to the 3-point line he actually improves as he’s hitting 26.1 percent (12-of-46) of those attempts this year. He’s doubled his output from 3, shooting 2.6 per game (as compared to 1.3 in college) so it’s definitely encouraging to see his efficiency raise with increased attempts.

Here he surveys the offense from the corner, then inches up ever so slightly giving Tyler Ulis a great passing angle for the kick out. He catches and rises up all in one fluid motion. On the catch he uses the one-two method in terms of his footwork keeping him on balance for the shot.

Here’s another example, but notice the difference in the footwork on the catch:

This time he stays put in the corner but uses the hop method on the catch and hits the 3. All of the other motion stays consistent, but most players use one method or the other, not a mix of the two. Yet another aspect of his game needing the slightest adaptation. The left corner has been his personal NBA jam “hot spot” this season as he’s knocked down 6-of-11 attempts from that area. He’s made just 6-of-25 3s from above the break and is a woeful 0-of-8 from the right corner.

Now, as the trailer, he goes back to the one-two method. While the fluidity of Jones’ shooting motion is rounding to form, consistency remains the most vital of habits for the budding star to perfect. Again, he’s only made 12 3-pointers all season and his percentage (26.1) is the worst in the entire D-League for players who have played at least 15 games and average at least 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds (so, wings).

Right now the most dangerous part of Jones’ offensive is his ultra efficiency in the paint. This season an astonishing 59.7 percent of his field goal attempts (120-of-201) have been layups, tip shots or dunks and congruently 60 percent of his points scored this season are in the paint.

In fact, in the restricted area Jones is finishing 73.5 percent (72-of-98) of his attempts. Surprisingly, he’s only making 41 percent (9-of-22) of his layups which is very strange considering his elite athleticism and proven finishing ability.

The trouble he’s running into with his non-dunk finishes at the rim are a lack of strength. Jones is long but listed at a mere 190 pounds. For comparison, Leandro Barbosa is listed at 195 pounds. That lack of bulk hurts Jones when he’s not able to explode above, or around opponents.

He has a switch with 4-man Charles Garcia guarding him. Garcia gives Jones space as right now he’s not a threat from the 3-point line, Jones attacks but shows a lack of shiftiness to get around the defender and is ultimately stymied by the larger Garcia. Jones’ tenacity and quick second jump ability allow him to gather the miss and finish, but this should have been an easier bucket for him.

Here he gets a switch with NBA assignee Josh Huestis picking him up. Huestis is a good defender and Jones’ lack of creativity and ball handling ability allow Huestis to stay with him. Once he gets close enough to rise up for the shot, Huestis uses his body mass to block Jones, causing a wild shot which goes in. Jones’ reaction shows he thinks he was fouled, but this is the type of defense he will see on a nightly basis once he makes the jump to the NBA, so building his strength will certainly be part of his overall development.

When he’s able to get around his opponent, however, look out because he brings the thunder:

Keith Benson leads the D-League in blocked shots and Jones made him look like a middle school center on that play.

The final frontier for Jones to conquer will be the defensive end where he already boasts impressive numbers thus far. Coach Ellis reiterated the importance of defense for Jones as well, “Defense is the key for him. The offensive stuff will eventually come, but he can make an impact on defense right now. People think athleticism is just how high someone can jump, but to me the lateral movement is just as telling. He’s a very athletic kid and he has all the tools to be an elite and versatile defender”.

His instincts in terms of shot-blocking (3.3 percent block rate) have been on full display during his time with the NAZ Suns as well.

Vander Blue is on pace to break his own record for free throws made and attempted this season and Jones has no problem sliding his feet to stay in front, and then rise up and swat away Blue’s shot attempt. Jumping ability alone does not make a great shot-blocker, just look at Blake Griffin (career block rate of just 1.4 percent). It takes impeccable timing, leaping ability and the ability to not foul while blocking or altering the shot as well.

Here Jon Octeus gets his layup blocked, tries to come back for a poster dunk, and instead Jones erases the attempt with ease leading to an easy layup for his team.

Weak side coverage is clearly important for Jones as he swoops in and demolishes these two shot attempts without batting an eye.

Derrick Jones Jr. is not a finished product. He’s not even a third of the way to where he could be in a couple seasons, but the flashes of potential are enough to sustain the NBA’s insatiable appetite for high-flying, energy-enticing products.

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While the offensive development will be watched under a microscope, it’s his will to stop the other team’s best player that excites his coach. Ellis told The Step Back, “He really enjoys the game. He’s quiet and stays to himself a lot, but he comes to me every game and says ‘coach, I want to guard their best player’ and I love that about him. He’s embracing the D-League and the process as he knows his time will come”.

The Phoenix Suns have compiled a young, potential-ridden core and while it may not seem evident at this moment, Jones may have the highest ceiling of them all.