After a rough stretch in which Damian Jones’ value has been questioned in multiple articles, the third-year center responded with a career-high-tying 13-point performance against the Sacramento Kings last night.
In addition to his career-high scoring, Jones grabbed a career-high tying six rebounds, showcasing the kind of aggression on the boards that people have been itching to see from the seven foot big man.
Jones gave us all people have imagined him doing and maybe more: he aggressively went for rebounds, ran the floor, drew fouls just from attacking the basket aggressively, and had plenty of big time dunks.
All-in-all, it was not only a great performance by Jones, but also a timely one as he has endured criticism throughout an ugly Warriors’ losing streak. But was this game enough to change the outlook for Jones?
I’ve seen enough of Damian Jones this season, you?— feltbot (@feltbot) November 24, 2018
Why there’s so much attention on Jones
For anyone trying to gauge the strength of the Golden State Warriors’ supporting cast around their four All-Stars (five once DeMarcus Cousins returns to action), Jones’ continued development is somewhat important — good bigs are hard to find and the Warriors could use players on cheaper contracts since they have to pay their big stars big money.
Many have preached patience, but that sentiment, as written by Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area this past Wednesday, comes off as somewhat unsatisfying.
This is Jones’ first season in the NBA. Drafted in the first round in 2016, he spent the vast majority of his time his first two seasons with G-League Santa Cruz, with only 174 minutes of NBA time.
So, yes, this is a learning experience. Jones likely will get at least somewhat better. But it’s hard to be so certain, considering Jones has been so uneven.
Just for context, Jones has already played more NBA game minutes this season than he did in his two previous years combined — with 363 minutes after playing 21 minutes last night, he has already played more than twice the 174 minutes he played during this first two seasons. So in terms of NBA time, yeah, it’s true that he hasn’t played a whole lot.
But what still stands out as troubling in forecasting his future is that Jones just hasn’t contributed a whole lot in many of those minutes while both Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney have each outplayed him in spurts at various times.
Rebounding is the most “glaring” problem
Although his 13 points will probably get the most attention over the next day or so, more encouraging was his career-high tying three offensive rebounds. That rebounding performance included an emphatic put-back dunk in the third quarter of a tight game, easily among the most consequential moments of his career thus far.
However, his three offensive rebounds last night matches the number of total rebounds Jones had the previous three games, which included a goose egg against the perennially tenacious Oklahoma City Thunder. The zero that Jones recorded against the Thunder was what prompted the majority of the critical articles recently, including one from Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle that seemed to articulate the problem with Jones well.
In 21 minutes, he had four points, two turnovers, two fouls and — most glaringly — zero rebounds...Though he boasts a 7-foot-3¾-inch wingspan and a 36-inch vertical leap, Jones lacks court-awareness at times and is easily bated into whistles. In just 17.5 minutes per game this season, Jones is averaging 2.7 fouls.
Perhaps most concerning is that Jones is far from a natural rebounder. Instead of using his massive frame to out-muscle opponents on the glass, he too often fails to box out or anticipate the missed shot. Jones’ 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes rank seventh on the team.
The problem is that this is not at all uncharacteristic. Although his increased minutes have put him under a microscope unlike scrutiny his play has ever received before, this isn’t just a case of a young player stuck in a rut as much as a young player simply struggling to find any sort of rhythm in the league.
But just focusing on his rebounding, the problem is that a player putting up rebounding numbers this low as a center doesn’t bode well for much career success, especially not when that player isn’t much of a scorer either. And when you look back on centers with comparable statistics, it’s hard to see what the path forward is for someone who has been inconsistent, at best, during his first consistent minutes of his career.
The ups and downs of early-season Damian Jones are now going in one direction. He's trending toward late-career Andris Biedrins territory. The more he plays, the more lost he seems.— Monte Poole (@MontePooleNBCS) November 24, 2018
The following is the list of centers who have had a season with a total rebound percentage under 10% and usage percentage under 12% in significant minutes from 1946 to present, according to Basketball-Reference.
You can click here to see the whole list independent of minutes (and check out multiple Jason Collins seasons, a Manute Bol season, and a sad Hassan Whiteside season), but the fact is that centers who neither rebound nor score usually just don’t last in the NBA. In fairness, both Jason Collins and Jon Koncak were starters for playoff teams at various points during their career. Yet, at the risk of upsetting Collins Hive and/or Koncak Krew (and props to anyone with that level of commitment to a NBA player), neither of those players had anywhere near the athleticism that Jones has shown us so far.
The fact that Jones can’t seem to bring his athleticism to bear on the game in any way that significantly influences winning is reason for concern, even in such limited minutes.
Nevertheless, the optimists among us might be interested in Jones’ shot-blocking ability given his 1.2 blocks per game in relatively limited minutes. Here’s the list of players who have ever put up a block percentage of 6% or more (as Jones has) along with that low usage under 12% on offense.
Yet what remains interesting about Jones’ profile is that he really doesn’t have many direct statistical comparables, whether you look at the stats or consider his journey to this point.
The reason to hold out hope
Statistically, Jones’ combination of .700 true shooting and 6% block rate with a low usage rate and low rebounding rate is just not a profile that any other center has had before. It might sound weird to say unprecedented when it’s not all good, but the combination is unheard of in the NBA. That could mean anything — as we’ve seen with Patrick McCaw preciously, a low usage rate can be a damning sign of passivity or it could just reflect a big who is being groomed to play alongside all-stars in a system predicated on ball movement and perimeter shooting.
If you’re feeling generous about Jones after last night’s 13-point, 6-rebound performance, it’s worth noting that as much as Jones struggles to bring his athleticism to bear on games his athleticism is also arguably the thing keeping him on the floor. He can do things that the Jon Koncaks or Jason Collinses of the world couldn’t and those players needed more than a thousand NBA game minutes before they could become consistent starters — Jones is well short of that. He could be (slowly) figuring things out as he gets more NBA minutes. And it’s just hard to judge his developmental curve against others because the G-League is still relatively new phenomenon — who’s to say that the foundation he developed there won’t eventually somehow manifest its way in more ways after he gains more NBA minutes? Maybe those minutes help a player work on skills without actually helping then figure out how to use that skill in the context of a NBA game.
However, none of that makes it less frustrating to watch a guy who shows glimpses of elite athleticism like this...
...after doing next to nothing for three straight games.
For now, it’s worth celebrating what Jones did against the Kings and their athletic, albeit inexperienced, front court. But he needs to string together a few like it before we can really get excited about his long-term outlook.