NEW ORLEANS — On Saturday night, “Airplane Mode” introduced himself to NBA fans around the world. It wasn’t quite the introduction 20-year-old Derrick Jones Jr. wanted to make, but his message was loud and clear.
“Next year, he’ll kill this contest,” Kenny Smith said on the TNT broadcast.
Jones Jr. did plenty to impress in his first taste of the NBA spotlight, delivering two between-the-legs jams that earned perfect scores and a 45 on which he leaped over four of his Phoenix Suns teammates. He finished as the runner-up to Pacers forward Glenn Robinson III.
Not bad for a player who entered the night having played 24 total minutes in the NBA and recorded three dunks — all in his most recent game.
Jones Jr. declared for the NBA Draft this past June after being ruled ineligible to compete in the NCAA following his freshman year at UNLV. Undrafted, he landed a contract with the Phoenix, whose NBA D-League affiliate moved from Bakersfield, Ca., to nearby Prescott Valley, Ariz., this season.
As a Northern Arizona Sun, Jones Jr. has produced many more viral highlights as he looks to develop into an NBA wing. He’s averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 18 NBA D-League games.
“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,” Jones Jr. told NBADLeague.com at the 2017 NBA D-League Showcase.
“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.”
In New Orleans, Jones Jr. said he hopes Saturday’s coming-out party can help jump-start what he hopes will be a long-term NBA career. When it comes to dunking, he has much loftier goals.
Vince Carter “is the best dunker of all-time,” he said. “I hope to take that title one day.”