It’s hard to believe that someone who can leap four large humans in a single bound didn’t have a place in the NBA, on its worst team no less, but Derrick Jones Jr. found himself in basketball limbo in early December of last year. Jones carved out a small niche for himself among the hundreds of bouncy, long athletes that populate the fringes of the league by coming in second in the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest, ahead of presumptive favorite Aaron Gordon. The problem was the shots away from the basket didn’t go down as easily; in 38 regular-season games with the Phoenix Suns, the lithe 6-foot-7 forward shot near the Mendoza Line outside of 5 feet. The Suns waived him about a third of the way into his sophomore season to sign journeyman point guard Mike James.
“Everyone has that moment if you get waived or if you get cut from a team like, ‘What did I do wrong? What can I do better?’” Jones said this week after a practice at Las Vegas summer league. “I realized I had to work harder.” He didn’t have to wait long for a second chance. The Miami Heat signed him to a two-way contract on New Year’s Eve.
The rest of Jones’s season with the parent club was unremarkable, though Miami coach Erik Spoelstra did nod to his potential guarding an opponent’s top wing. However, his numbers in 13 games with the Heat’s G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, bring to life his physical tools better than a sketch artist: 19.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.7 blocks, 51.2 percent from the field, 35.6 percent from 3. That version of Jones is the one that’s carried into summer league, where, at times, the 21-year-old looked like the most gifted player on the floor alongside the likes of Marvin Bagley III, the no. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Jones’s athleticism can still produce adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart moments that rival the NBA’s most dynamic stars; he nearly hurdled a teammate again Sunday, only this time in a live game off a rebound he tracked from the 3-point arc:
But he’s putting his raw ability to work with consistent activity on both ends, and, perhaps more importantly, by flashing the sort of 3-point stroke that could take his game to another level next season. When there are more knockdown 3s than putbacks to start a highlight reel for the league’s best in-game dunker, you know something’s up:
Jones finished second in scoring at Sacramento’s California (and southeast Florida?) Classic with 21.3 points per game (on 51 percent shooting), and no lower than ninth in rebounds (7.3), steals (2.0), and blocks (1.3). He had nine points and two rebounds in one quarter at Las Vegas summer league before suffering a right ankle sprain that could sideline him the rest of the way. “You see the product [of his hard work] happening before your eyes,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “When you first saw him, you’re like, ‘He’s really athletic.’ But now you’re saying, ‘He’s really a good shooter.’” Adebayo added that balancing drills specifically have helped Jones’s jump shot.
The reward for Jones’s breakout, if we’re allowing for such honors amid organized scrimmages, came before summer league began: The Heat’s first move in free agency was to sign Jones to a two-year contract at the minimum, with the first year guaranteed. As such, Jones will no longer have his days with the big league team capped. Miami, meanwhile, can claim another recent graduate of its developmental boot camp.
In the wake of the Big Three era’s collapse, the Heat have become a starless, system-based team composed mostly of homegrown products and reclamation projects. They’re the Spurs hopped up on Cafe Cubanos. Among the 11 players on the current active roster, only five were drafted in the first round. Two of those first-rounders were selected by the Heat themselves (Adebayo and Justise Winslow), and just one was inside the top 10 picks (Dion!!!!). The majority are restorations worthy of an HGTV show: Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, and Jones went undrafted out of college; Hassan Whiteside worked his way up through the G League after flaming out with the Kings; Josh Richardson was a second-rounder; James Johnson is on his fifth team in nine years. Even Goran Dragic, an All-Star replacement last season, is a former Most Improved Player award winner after a Steve Nashesque late-career surge.
No one is rolling out Kiss pyrotechnics to introduce Kelly Olynyk, but the skill sets that dot the roster are very much a spiritual successor to the Heatles. Miami’s embrace of small ball, with Shane Battier guarding power forwards and Chris Bosh stretching out to the 3-point arc, helped it push past all of the emotional and structural issues of its first season with LeBron James. Now there are players up and down this ugly delicious rotation that subvert the expectations of their body types or positions.
Adebayo, a Geodude of a center, can lead a fast break and facilitate from the elbow. Winslow, ostensibly a small forward, has played center at times in key playoff games. McGruder is a shooting guard that doesn’t shoot often, but virtually everyone else can put it up from long range (and Whiteside is dying to if anyone would let him). It’s a stretch to suggest this team is a complete departure from the Pat Riley era considering both Spoelstra and senior VP Andy Elisburg are Heat lifers with two decades apiece under Riley. But heading into Spoelstra’s 10th season as head coach, the Heat look like a team constructed for a former video coordinator and not the big-ring-swinging patriarch who once considered 3-pointers a “gimmick.”
And yet, the Heat’s success in building equity (and abs) in players has also become one of their biggest obstacles. The militaristic discipline and work ethic in the bones of the organization have recently made tanking sacrilegious, and rather than letting another team enjoy the fruits of their labor, the Heat have dug deep in their pockets to retain Waiters and both Johnsons in recent years. You’re usually only as good as your highest-paid players, but Miami’s two top earners next season, Whiteside and Tyler Johnson, will likely come off the bench. Miami knows the power of star players and would love to have them again, as evidenced by its recent reported interest in Carmelo Anthony. But without cap room or first-round picks from the 2016 and 2018 drafts (and again in 2021), they lack the traditional tracks for acquiring them. “While internal improvement and development is a huge part of our organization, going outside and looking around, now is the opportunity to have those conversations—trying to find a transformative player, maybe, is probably what our challenge is going to be,” Riley said at a season-ending press conference directed by Oliver Stone. “I always go back to the very first trade I made here to get [Alonzo Mourning]. There are more of those out there.”
That’s where Jones comes in. Miami may not have the money to pay for a frontline player’s services outright for another season or two, but its feeder system has slowly churned out a group of up-and-coming young players that, when packaged together, could be appealing to a team looking to unload its unhappy superstar. And as more All-Star players look to uproot themselves before hitting free agency, that, plus Miami’s lifestyle allure and organizational stability, may be enough to meet Riley’s challenge.
Being in the middle of the standings has long been thought of as the worst place to be for an NBA team, much like a midrange jump shot is on the court. But teams like the Heat and Clippers are silently rebelling against the binary nature of the league. We’ll see if it works. It’s still much easier to operate with an elite talent in hand, whether that be a current All-Star or a prospect with All-Star potential; Brandon Ingram, for instance, appears to be a trump card in the race for Kawhi Leonard. Yet, as the Heat continue to bump up against their current ceiling, they’ve also managed to create a small pathway to something greater. The payoff for hard work extends beyond the players on the court.
“I’ve worked harder than I did ever in my life when I’m with this team,” Jones said. “They hold you to a higher standard. Everyone in the organization is working hard, so you don’t want to be that one guy singled out like, ‘He’s out here BSing it,’ or half-assing it. I want to be that one [guy] that they say, ‘Yeah, he’s in here every day. He’s working hard. He wants to be better.’ That’s the player I plan on being.
“That’s just the Heat culture. You come here, you want to work hard.”