Giving away two inches in height and some 20 pounds in weight when he got switched onto Thomas Robinson on Monday night, DeQuan Jones used his basketball smarts to reach in and tie up the Houston Rockets power forward and force a jump ball.
Then, in a situation few expected him to win because of the size difference, Jones shot off the floor like a rocket, out-jumped Robinson and forced a jump ball violation that won possession of the ball for the Orlando Magic.
It’s those kinds of scrappy plays that helped Jones overcome some of the greatest of odds and stick with the Magic this season. Now, after proving that he belongs in the NBA and earning a steady spot in the regular rotation, Jones has risen to starter status and is showing great promise for the future.
Surprisingly undrafted in June of 2011, Jones caught the eye of the Magic’s organization when he thrived in the summer league with all-out hustle. He parlayed that into an invite to training camp, where he outplayed several more accomplished players around him. That got him on the opening day roster, and he’s made the most of his rookie season in the NBA by staring down LeBron James in a critical moment and delivering some of the Magic’s best dunks of the season.
The manner in which the 6-foot-8 small forward made the NBA – scrapping through the summer league and thriving as an undrafted player when little was expected – still pushes him today.
“I look back on that an imprint on my career,” Jones said. “Those shining moments and the recollections of that come in handy when I hit adversity. Whether that’s not playing or struggling or having a bad game or whatever the case it, I look back on those times when I overcame some things and realize what got me to this point. That was staying positive and always being ready got me here.
“Having said all of that, I know now that there is still so much that I can accomplish in this league,” Jones continued. “I have to realize my potential and realize all that I can accomplish in this game.”
Jones is part of a young Magic core that includes Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson – a group the Magic have chosen to spend this season developing for a brighter day in the future. On almost a daily basis now, one of the second-year players or rookies shines with a career night. One night, it’s Vucevic grabbing a franchise-record 29 rebounds, another night it’s O’Quinn setting several career highs in his native New York. Or it’s Harris stringing together dazzling offensive performances or the quickly blossoming Harkless coming within a basket of being the youngest Magic player ever to score 30 points in a game.
For his part, Jones has made 17 starts – and the one on Monday night included a workmanlike performance with three steals, two blocked shots and one basket. He had a career-best 13 points last week in Charlotte, a game where he twice left the backboard shaking with thunderous dunks and mouths agape with his awesome athleticism; and most recently posted 12 points and two steals in San Antonio against the Spurs on April 3.
“You watch him on the floor and he stands out because he is so athletic, whether it’s grabbing a rebound above the rim or beating six other guys down the floor because of his speed,” said Magic Head Coach Jacque Vaughn, who championed Jones’ cause early on because of his willingness to play so hard.
“Now, how does he harness that and be fundamental at the same time?” Vaughn continued. “He has to close out on defense, but he has to close out under control and he doesn’t go for pump fakes. Things like that have started to become second nature to him now and DeQuan’s improving.”
Unfortunately for Jones, one of the enduring moments of this season will be the night in Miami when the rookie small forward was matched up against Heat superstar LeBron James with the game on the line. Considering the stakes on the line – Orlando was poised to end the Heat’s winning streak at 16 games and he was matched up one-on-one with the best player in the game today – it was the equivalent of looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.
Jones, who had guarded James some in pickup games when he was still a college student at the University of Miami, knew he had to try and pick his poison against James. He turned him left – toward his help defense – but when little came it was a showdown at the rim. Jones went high into the air and swatted at the shot, but James used his 250-pound girth to keep the Magic rookie away from the left-handed layup that gave Miami a 97-96 victory.
Throughout a Miami streak that eventually stretched to 27 games, national sports shows repeatedly showed the clip, giving Jones a chance to relive the sour moment on an almost daily basis. But in his usual cheery nature, he decided to turn that negative moment into a positive.
“It was a big learning experience for me and I still watch that play closely every time that I see it on TV,” Jones said. “My friends and everybody jokes with me about it, but I tell them, ‘I could get used to that. I could get used to being in those situations and showing what I can against the best in the world.’”
Jones has gone through stretches this season where he hasn’t played much, but he has continued to repeat the same mantra to himself: “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” And Vaughn has rewarded him for his gritty effort in practice by including him back in the rotation.
Jones, who has been one of the Magic’s most active participants in community work this season, said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to stick in the NBA. He’s already overcome some of the biggest odds he’ll ever face by making the Magic’s roster as an undrafted free agent. Now, he feels like he’s done enough to show that he belongs in the NBA for several years to come. And he just wants to build off this season and realize his full potential.
“Everybody is opinionated and everybody has blogs and tries to be sports analysts. I’ve heard that he’s going to have longevity in this league and I’ve heard he’s the worst player in the NBA,” Jones said of himself with a laugh. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but I feel like I’ve shown that I can play in this league. I’m just going to keep building onto what I have already done. Every time I step on that court it’s still a matter of me going out there and feeling like I need to prove myself.
“I’m just enjoying the ride,” Jones added, “and I’m not going anywhere any time soon.”
Source: John Denton, Orlando Magic Media