Josh Jones (above) had 24 points and nine rebounds as North Penn downed Strath Haven in the District 1 6A first round. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Josh Jones thought he’d given up basketball after middle school.
A standout soccer player who knew his athletics future was on the pitch, Jones dropped his other favorite sport when he arrived at North Penn High School. There was certainly some temptation to join the Knights on the hardwood, his athletic 6-foot-5 frame tough to ignore even in a school of 3,000-plus students, but Jones didn’t think he’d be able to make it work.
“I would see some of the guys in the hallway and they’d all want me to play [basketball],” Jones said, “but time-wise, I wasn’t able to.”
Thankfully for head coach John Conrad and his Knights, Jones changed his mind midway through his high school years — a decision a few other area programs certainly wish he hadn’t made. The future Louisville center back has been a centerpiece of North Penn’s hoops squad for the last two seasons, and he’s not quite done yet.
Jones continued his strong senior year on Saturday at Strath Haven, leading the way as his No. 18 seed Knights downed the No. 15 seed Panthers, 68-62, in the first round of the District 1 6A playoffs. That extends his unexpected basketball resurgence for at least another game, against No. 2 seed Conestoga on Tuesday.
“I’ve been just trying to take each moment in and realize that every game could be my last, so I’m going to leave it all out there,” Jones said. “Definitely when the season’s over, it’ll probably hit me that I’ll never play basketball again, but right now I’m just living in the moment and enjoying it.”
Jones certainly enjoyed his afternoon in Wallingford, scoring 24 points and grabbing nine rebounds to lead his team in both categories. Doing most of his damage from the mid-range and in, Jones shot 9-of-11 from the floor, utilizing nifty footwork and an ever-running motor to take defenders off the bounce and get to the bucket, or hitting pull-up jumpers.
His only 3-point attempt put North Penn (11-6) up 60-55 with under five minutes to play in the fourth quarter of a game that was played with the two teams only separated by six points at most the entire way through. A key block in the final minute helped seal the victory.
Billy Coley (above) had 16 points, including a clutch triple in the game's closing minutes. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Those kinds of outings have been commonplace all season long for Jones, who despite not playing basketball freshman or sophomore year is still the most experienced player on the team. The only other senior in the lineup, Billy Coley — who also had a strong game against Strath Haven with 16 points, including a key 3-pointer with two minutes left that made it a six-point game — was a deeper reserve a year ago.
Jones is the only returning starter from last year’s PIAA Class 6A state tournament qualifier, a team that made it into the district playoffs as the No. 24 seed and pulling a few upsets. He also benefits from postseason experience in soccer; North Penn won the district and state championships in soccer in 2019, his junior year.
“I know what’s expected in these kinds of games, everything’s going to be a battle, win or go home and you’ve got to leave everything out there,” Jones said. “I’ve been there last year and it’s expected for me to deliver.”
It was after the 2018-19 basketball season that Conrad, now in his 10th year as the Knights’ boys basketball head coach, sat down with Jones to see if they could work something out. Jones had been missing basketball over his first couple years at the school, and put in word through his school college counselor — who was also his 8th grade basketball coach — that he’d be interested in discussing the possibility.
Conrad made it clear he knew Jones’ priority would be soccer, and didn’t mind if Jones had to miss practices or offseason events for soccer activities. Jones plays with the youth team of the Philadelphia Ukranian Nationals SC, which is one of the area’s most storied amateur soccer programs.
“I went and saw him play soccer a few times, you could tell he’s very athletic, good timing, you can tell the way he moves he’s an athlete, and his size, and I’d heard great things about his character,” Conrad said. “So how could he not be a fit?”
“I tried out right after we won the state championship for soccer,” Jones said, “and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Jones admitted his first few games with the hoops team he was ‘tentative,’ though the coaches had enough confidence in him to put him in the starting lineup from the get-go. But after scoring 28 points in a win over Quakertown, he realized his ability to fill it up could benefit the program.
“The coaches and I met and talked and they said I could really provide some scoring for us when we needed it,” he said, “so after that I grew more comfortable taking more shots each game and trying to get to the basket and score.”
Jones will play soccer at Louisville, which advanced to the third round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That scoring mindset wasn’t anything new for Jones, who despite playing a soccer position known more as a defensive role scored 13 goals during his senior year. He says there’s plenty about his soccer skill set that translates over to the hardwood.
“My footwork and my quickness, being a center back, for my club I usually go up against quick, fast strikers. I’ve had to have good footwork pretty much for my position, my whole life. I think that’s definitely translated to basketball.”
There’s also that other skill soccer players are known for: their ability to run miles on the pitch without stopping. It’s no coincidence that Jones was able to move just as well down the stretch of the Haven win as he was from tip-off.
“I think everyone on my team notices...we’ll be running sprints and they’re getting tired, and I’m still fresh, and they’re always joking about how it’s only because I play soccer,” Jones said. “That’s definitely been a big help for basketball, staying fit.”
“There’s never a thought of taking him out, honestly,” Conrad said. “He just goes.”
Whenever Jones’ basketball season does end, he’ll turn his thoughts ahead to joining a Cardinals soccer program that made it to the third round of the 2019 NCAA men’s soccer tournament. Before departing for school in July, he’ll participate in the HS All-American Game.
Of course, if that basketball itch gets too annoying to ignore, Jones could always try walking into Chris Mack’s office and seeing if they need a 6-5 walk-on….right?
“Yeah,” Jones said with a laugh. “You never know.”
North Penn: 15 | 13 | 21 | 19 || 68
Strath Haven: 14 | 16 | 15 | 17 || 62
North Penn: 24-47 FG (7-18 3PT), 13-18 FT
Strath Haven: 23-51 FG (9-18 3PT), 7-11 FT
North Penn: Jones 24, Coley 16, Zeltt 9, Sgro 7, Larkins 5, Pulugura 5, Wright 2
Strath Haven: Edwards 32, George 8, Jaureugi 7, Shuler 6, Holiday 4, Borgstrum 3, Goley 2
District 1 6A First Round
20) Upper Dublin 48, 13) Haverford HS 46
14) Abington 39, 19) Kennett 36
15) North Penn 68, 18) Strath Haven 62
16) Methacton 46, 17) Central Bucks South 38
District 1 6A Second Round
All games Tues., March 9 @ 7 PM; higher seed hosting
1) Cheltenham vs. 16) Methacton
8) Downingtown West vs. 9) Lower Merion
4) Garnet Valley vs. 20) Upper Dublin
5) Perkiomen Valley vs. 12) Pennridge
2) Conestoga vs. 18) North Penn
7) Central Bucks East vs. 10) Boyertown
3) Plymouth Whitemarsh vs. 14) Abington
6) West Chester East vs. 11) Neshaminy