Archbishop Carroll (Pa.) 2015 SF Derrick Jones. (Photo: Tom Reifsnyder)
Tom Reifsnyder (@tom_reifsnyder)
Four exceptionally tall high school basketball players stood in a straight line with their smartphones in hand, just a few feet from a hoop in West Orange (N.J.) High School’s main gym, hoping to be a part of something spectacular.
Roughly 15 feet behind them was a 6-foot-6, 185-pound dunking machine, also known as Derrick Jones.
It was the final round of the fifth annual Mary Kline Classic dunk contest, which featured the Archbishop Carroll (Pa.) senior small forward and St. Joseph’s-Metuchen (N.J.) junior point guard Breein Tyree squaring off for the crown.
Just as the four players in front of the hoop started trembling from anticipation, Jones made a break towards the rim. With one smooth, gravity-defying leap, the slender Philadelphia native soared over the four-man human wall and crushed a lefty tomahawk, evoking a collective “Oh!” from players, coaches and fans alike.
The crowd promptly surrounded Jones in a frenzy of celebration, but the UNLV-bound recruit couldn’t have possibly looked more at ease in his moment of triumph.
For Jones, arguably the best high school dunker in the country, this was his proverbial bow to the audience.
“This is my last dunk contest,” Jones said after Saturday’s event. “And this is my last high school game ever, so I just wanted to go out with a bang and win a dunk contest and get MVP.”
Jones accomplished each of his goals by night’s end, scoring 35 points, including a game-high nine dunks, in the upperclassmen game on his way to earning Co-MVP honors, and, of course, winning the dunk contest by unanimous decision.
The biggest knock on Jones, however, is that he’s just a dunker.
It’s not an easy notion to shake when you’ve been throwing it down since the seventh grade and winning dunk contests left and right all throughout high school.
But something was different about Jones on Saturday night. The hyper-athletic small forward looked uncharacteristically comfortable behind the three-point arc, knocking down three triples on a conservative number of attempts in the upperclassmen game.
“Dunking is just something that I do. That’s not what I am,” Jones said. “I’m more than a dunker. I’m a basketball player. Most basketball players can dunk, some of them can’t, so I try to do whatever I can to get my team to win.
“And if I need to shoot threes and knock them down, then that’s what I’m going to do. But if I need a dunk to win, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Don’t go calling him a three-point marksman just yet, but there’s no doubting Jones appears to be turning a corner with his perimeter game. He says he’s been in the gym almost every day since the end of his final high school season, working on his weaknesses with his former WeR1 AAU coach, Terrell Myers.
As for his one-dimensional reputation, he’ll continue to take it in stride and make defenders pay for what he believes to be just a misconception.
“I’m happy everybody thinks that [I’m just a dunker], because when I come on the court and they think I’m just going to dunk and they play back, I’m going to shoot and knock it down every time,” Jones said with a grin. “People think I’m going to just dunk, so if I hit the jump shot, then it’s going to open my game up even more.”
Armed with an NBA-level dunk package and an improving outside shot, the highly-touted Carroll senior looks ready to make some palpable noise on the court for UNLV as a freshman. But according to Jones, the Runnin’ Rebels’ coaching staff still has one big area of improvement in mind for the lanky forward this offseason.
“They just want me to…like what everybody has been saying, I just need to get stronger,” Jones said. “But that’s what I’m doing. I’m in the gym playin’ ball or I’m working out or I’m lifting.
“That’s what I’m doing now so I can be at the next level killin’.”
Despite his thin body type, Jones had little trouble holding his own on the high school level against top competition, utilizing his freakish athleticism and length to impose an advantage over some bigger, stronger players.
The Pennsylvania Sports Writers’ Class AAA Player of the Year averaged 19.3 points and 10.1 rebounds as a senior, leading Carroll (23-7) within a win of the school’s first PIAA Class AAA state championship since 2009, which is around the same time Jones was throwing down his first dunk.
As Jones’ high school career fades into the horizon, you can be certain he’ll be remembered and revered for his high-flying, rim-crushing dunks that made him a must-watch player at Carroll.
But over the years, Jones has seemingly transcended from player to performer, using the basketball courts of Philadelphia and beyond as his stage.
Say what you want about him, but you can always count on Jones for a great show.
“I don’t know [what my legacy will be],” Jones said introspectively. “I hope they just say that I’m a great all-around basketball player. When it comes down to it, I lock up. And if I’m guarding the best player and they have a little bit more exposure than me, I’m going to lock up.
“But if they don’t, I’m going to go out and still lock up. I’m going to play my game and get my buckets.”