The 2017 Verizon Slam Dunk field is high on name recognition: Aaron Gordon, who dropped jaws in Toronto a year ago. Lob City’s DeAndre Jordan. Glenn Robinson III, son of the two-time NBA All-Star.
Then there’s Derrick Jones Jr., who turned 20 three days before taking center stage in New Orleans on All-Star Saturday Night. He will arrive to the contest as a virtual unknown in NBA circles — understandable considering he’s played a total of 24 minutes and dunked three times as an NBA player, spending most of the season with Phoenix’s newly relocated NBA D-League affiliate, the Northern Arizona Suns.
But make no mistake: the rookie can fly with the best dunkers who have participated in the event through the years. Meet Derrick Jones Jr., a.k.a. “Airplane Mode”:
Jones Jr. grew up outside of Philadelphia in Chester, Pa., a crime-ridden city that boasts a rich basketball heritage. (Other current NBA players from the area include Jameer Nelson, Tyreke Evans and Rondae-Hollis-Jefferson.)
“Coming from Chester, it being a violent city, not a lot of people make it out of there, not a lot of people make it to the age of 21,” said Jones Jr. “I’m just so thankful that my father, my mother and my grandmother got me out of the situation I was in. I’m a much better player and person today. It just means everything. Where I’m from, that’s who I am. It’s the reason I’m that scrapper. Where I’m from, you had to be. Either you play your heart out, or you’re going to get punked. I learned that when I was about 9 or 10. I never let anybody punk me no matter how big or small they are.”
He moved to the Philly suburbs for high school, attending Archbishop John Carroll in Radnor, where he emerged as a Top 100 recruit. But after leading UNLV in scoring during his freshman collegiate season, he was ruled ineligible due to ACT testing issues.
He declared for the NBA Draft, went undrafted and signed with the Suns. As an NBA assignment to the D-League, Jones Jr. remains under contract with the Suns but has been shuttled between Phoenix and nearby Prescott Valley throughout the season.
TALE OF THE TAPE
At 6-7 and a skinny 190, Jones Jr. is the definition of bouncy. He cites Vince Carter as his biggest influence as a dunker. “I really watched a lot of Vince Carter because he was the best dunker of all-time,” Jones Jr. told NBADLeague.com. “I love the 360 windmill he did. That’s the dunk I did to win my first dunk contest.”
DUNK OF THE YEAR
Most of Jones Jr.’s highlight-reel dunks this season have been routine for him. But one stands among the best of his young career: a Dec. 3 alley-oop at the Prescott Valley Event Center — about an hour and a half drive from the Suns’ home arena. Jones Jr. said he threw down a similar dunk as a sophomore in high school and similarly went viral.
“That was one of my favorite dunks. That’s probably the only dunk that really caught my eye this year. Because I didn’t think I was gonna get that — not even my own self.”
While dunking has brought him to the national stage, Jones Jr. knows that “defense is gonna get me to the NBA and help me stay there.”
The Suns’ development plan for the third 19-year-old on their roster — lottery picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are even younger — involves consistent D-League reps and consistent work in the weight room.
Jones Jr. has flashed his defensive potential at times with the NAZ Suns while scoring most of his points off of cuts or fastbreaks. In 18 NBA D-League games, he’s averaging 14.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
"I'm pretty sure everybody expects to get drafted. Me, I was thinking about it, I was hoping and praying, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my downfall. I've always been the underdog all my life. It’s nothing new to me… I'm chasing my dream, I'm chasing it until my legs can’t move any more. Coming from Chester (PA), it being a violent city, not a lot of people make it out of there. Not a lot of people make it to the age of 21. Where I’m from, that’s who I am. It’s the reason I’m that scrapper. Where I’m from, you had to be. The feeling I have with basketball… I feel free. When I'm in between those lines, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Either you're gonna get what you want or you're gonna get eaten. I refuse to lose. I have to be successful in life – successful on the court and off the court. I love the situation I'm in right now. I'm on the Phoenix @Suns' roster as an undrafted free agent rookie. I mean, I pray every night to God; it’s just a blessing that I'm here. I'm just happy to wake up every morning playing the game that I love and being paid for it." 💭 19-year-old @nazsuns assignee Derrick Jones Jr. #ThisIsWhyWePlay