Vanderbilt big man Damian Jones sits down with Jonathan Givony to discuss his background, the type of player he is, how he sees himself fitting onto an NBA roster, the improvements he'll have to make, and much more.
Scouting Report by Matt Kamalsky. Video Analysis by Mike Schmitz
Coming off a season that included a trip to the NIT and All-SEC First Team honors, Damian Jones returned to Nashville looking to solidify himself as an NBA prospect. Making the unusual decision to announce his intention to declare for the NBA Draft last October, some eight months before event itself, Jones figured to once again play a prominent role for the Commodores as the program aimed to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and make some noise in what appeared to be a wide-open SEC.
Posting slightly improved numbers in most key areas on a per-minute basis than he did as a sophomore, Jones scored 13.9 points and pulled down 6.9 rebounds per game as a junior. The former top-100 recruit came out of the gates strong, helping Kevin Stallings's team to a second place finish at the Maui Invitational, but like the Commodores on the whole, had significant ups and downs this season.
He finished among the top-10 players in the SEC in points per-40 minutes pace adjusted, field goal percentage, and block rate among qualified players, helping Vanderbilt to a NCAA Tournament First Four appearance, where they were promptly dispatched by Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and the Wichita State Shockers. Held to 5 points in that game as he was hampered by foul trouble, Jones earned All-SEC First Team honors once again, but didn't quite take the significant step forward that would have solidified his standing as one of the top big men eligible for the 2016 NBA Draft.
Standing 6'11.5 in shoes with a tremendous 7'3.75 wingspan and a 244-pound frame that carries just 6.6% body fat, it isn't hard to figure out what makes Jones an intriguing NBA prospect on first glance. He may not be an Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan-level freak of nature, but has everything scouts look for in a center prospect physically, and a frame that still has room to grow. On top of his sheer size, Jones is also a good athlete for his size with a good mobility and explosiveness, even if he doesn't appear to be the most fluid strider running up and down the floor.
Playing nearly the exact same role that he did a year ago, Jones averaged a very respectable 1.01 points per possession over 13.5 possessions per game as a junior, a side-step from the .992 he scored over 14.6 per game as a sophomore. Doing the majority of his scoring one-on-one on the block, the Louisiana native was asked to use his size to his advantage against smaller defenders and finish shots created for him in the half court. Not the most polished player in terms of his instincts as a scorer and passer, Jones was not asked to be particularly versatile for Vanderbilt.
Finishing the year shooting an impressive 56% on the block, the 20-year-old big man doesn't have the most polished offensive repertoire, but his size, couple with flashes of touch on his turnaround jump shot and right handed hook allowed him to be quite effective in spurts creating for himself inside. Lacking much in the way of counter moves, Jones gets tunnel vision at times and his shot selection and feel for creating for himself isn't ideal, but as much as his game isn't pretty, it was quite efficient a year ago.
Aside from his ability to score on the block, Jones did his best work by far as a finisher around the rim. Shooting 68% around the basket in the half court, the athletic big man is quick off his feet and can dunk the ball effortlessly. The limiting factor on Jones's effectiveness inside last season was how frequently he settled for difficult shots, brought the ball low allowing the defense to get into position, and didn't go up quite as strong as one would hope in traffic. To his credit, Jones didn't necessarily shy away from contact, as he got to the line for 7.7 free throws per-40 minutes pace adjusted.
Unfortunately, Jones only converted 54% of his free throws last season, down from 61% a year before. His struggles at the line aren't surprising, as he made just 26% of his jump shots in the half court as well. Showing some flashes making jumpers out to 15-17 feet, but not with the kind of consistency you'd hope, Jones seems to have some upside as a shooter, but remains a long way away from being a reliable threat from the midrange. Similarly, he flashes the ability to put the ball on the floor an attack slower defenders driving to the rim, but often forces wild shots when he can't get an angle.
On the whole, Jones isn't an incapable scorer, but he disappeared for stretches on the offensive end, which proved problematic on a team that could have really benefited from a workhorse scoring presence. Jones doesn't always impose his will on games, lacking a degree of toughness, intensity and assertiveness at times, but his ability to finish around the rim, draw contact, and make the most of his tools on the glass figure to be far bigger part of his role than his ability to consistently impact the game on the block. His skill level is still a work in progress and his feel and motor leave something to be desired, but we've seen a number of big men with similar physical gifts make significant leaps or find key roles at the NBA level with better coaching and player development than they found in college. The team selecting Jones will hope he can take a page out of former Vanderbilt big man Festus Ezeli's book and grow into a rotation player.
Defensively, Jones is a bit of a mixed bag. Blocking a solid 2.5 shots per 40-minutes pace adjusted, Jones has some impressive flashes rejecting would-be scorers, but doesn't have great instincts contesting shots on the ball and isn't always as physically aggressive as you'd like a player his size to be around the rim. His instincts and passivity on the defensive glass are a more consistent issue as he pulled down just 7.1 defensive rebounder per-40 minutes pace adjusted, the fourth lowest mark among the 13 centers ranked in our top-100, behind a number of players with far less impressive physical profiles.
Jones has the quickness to step away from the rim and defend the perimeter fairly impressively in spurts and the strength to hold his own in the post, but he frequently gets caught in no man's land, is a step slow with his awareness, and doesn't show great anticipation. Jones clearly has the physical tools to be a factor on this end, and the flashes of potential he shows leave some room for optimism, but his instincts are still catching up.
Frustratingly inconsistent at times over the course of his three-year collegiate career, Jones is a one of the younger prospects in our junior rankings at just 20 years old. An Engineering Science major who has consistently been lauded for his intelligence off the floor, the flashes of good things Jones showed, coupled with his physical tools, give him the type of upside that could lead a team to bet on him in the mid to late first round. A late bloomer of sorts (RSCI #91), they'll hope he can begin to develop the kind of mean streak and consistency that would help him make better use of his physical tools as he enters his 20s, as players in his mold often develop later than most.
Analyzing the November 19 matchup between Vanderbilt center Damian Jones and Stony Brook's Jameel Warney on both ends of the floor, with a particular emphasis on their head to head possessions. Video by Jon Giesbrecht.
Jones is far from a finished product as a player, but he showed glimpses of why he could very well develop into the best center to play at the 2015 Nike Academy. First and foremost, Jones helped himself by measuring 7' 0 with a 7' 2 wingspan. Jones has always been somewhat caught between the four and the five, but measuring a legitimate 7' 0 in shoes with a solid wingspan and an outstanding frame will allow him to easily play the five at the NBA level.
The Vandy big man is strong, mobile and very explosive vertically. He's not quite as quick off the floor as you would think, but he's very capable of playing above the rim with ease, as he showed with a handful of vicious dunks.
While he's still very raw offensively both in terms of skill set and overall feel, Jones did do some things offensively that he struggled to do with any consistency during his first two years at Vanderbilt. The Baton Rouge, LA native knocked down a turnaround jumper over his right shoulder, stepped into a mid-range jumper, dropped in a right handed jump hook and converted a tough left handed finish over length.
On the flip side, Jones still looked like an athlete transitioning into a basketball player at times. His natural basketball instincts aren't great, and he had issues creating on the block consistently and making the right play versus pressure. Jones commits more unforced errors than you would like, and still has very rigid footwork on the interior.
Jones' basketball IQ limitations showed on the defensive end as well. While his physical tools allowed him to come up with several impressive steals and blocks over the course of the camp, he also got lost off the ball from time to time and still has to prove himself as a legitimate rim protector. Jones also isn't all that aggressive or tough on the defensive glass, as he has a tendency to stand and watch rather than attack the defensive glass and rebound outside of his own area.
Jones is still a project and he'll most certainly have to improve his feel for the game and basketball instincts on both ends, but his 7-foot status, physical profile and glimpses of scoring ability certainly helped his stock as he enters a very important junior season at Vanderbilt.
The past two seasons have been difficult for Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt squad, as the Commodores missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years now and struggled to stay competitive in the SEC behind a rash of transfers, suspensions and general upheaval.
One of the few bright spots last year was the play of freshman Damian Jones, a former Top-100 high school recruit who ended up being named to the SEC All-Rookie team. Jones was one of the youngest freshmen to play a major role for a high-major college program, only turning 19 a few months after the season ended. He easily could be going into his freshman year of college right now instead of his sophomore season, as he's younger than five of the players from last year's McDonald's All-American game.
Jones came off the bench for the first three games of the season, but ended up starting every game the rest of the way. He was unable to help Vanderbilt avoid finishing under. .500 in SEC play (and overall as well) for the second year in a row, the first time that's happened to Commodores in over a decade.
Listed at 6-10, 240 pounds, Jones has good size for a big man, to go along with a long wingspan and a solid frame that should fill out nicely in time. He is a good athlete on top of that, quick off feet, and very mobile overall, although not ridiculously explosive.
Jones saw almost half of his offensive possessions with his back to the basket last season, a significant share (certainly for a player his age) that ranked him in the top-30 players in college basketball in terms of sheer volume. He was relatively productive there, hitting 50% of his field goal attempts, as he has a nice skill-level relative to his lack of experience. Jones has solid footwork inside the paint, to go along with soft touch and the ability to finish with either hand. He doesn't have the most diverse post-arsenal at this stage and is limited somewhat by his lack of strength, but he shows flashes of ability knocking down jump-hooks and executing pretty spin moves, even throwing in the occasional turnaround jump-shot.
On the downside, Jones is an extremely poor passer, generating only 7 assists in 784 minutes, last season. His 2.4% assist percentage ranked last among all returning college players in our Top-100 prospects, and he was statistically one of the worst passers in college basketball overall. Jones' feel for the game clearly isn't the best, and he was probably thrust into a larger role than he was ready for as an 18-year old freshman, but it's important to consider what other options he had to pass to on his squad. Vanderbilt really struggled as a team to make outside shots or just score in general, which is likely reflected in Jones' passing metrics and the way opposing defenses game-planned for him.
Jones also saw a good amount of offense playing off the ball, be it as a cutter, roll-man, offensive rebounder, or floor-runner in the open court. He finishes his non-post up attempts at a very solid rate around the basket, converting 61% of his looks in these situations, thanks to his soft hands, nice touch, long arms and solid mobility.
Jones rarely stepped outside the paint offensively, only taking 12 jumpers on the season and very rarely being asked to put the ball on the floor from the perimeter. His skill-level is obviously a work in progress, as the mechanics on his jumper need work (he shoots an awkward one-handed jump-shot) and his ball-handling skills are rudimentary at best. He only converted 57% of his free throws last season, which indicates he has plenty of room to improve still as a shooter.
Defensively, Jones has excellent tools, with his solid size, length and athleticism. He's mobile enough to hedge screens on the perimeter and stay in front of smaller players, and is a major presence rotating from the weakside, blocking 2.4 shots per-40 minutes last season, seventh best in the conference.
With that said, Jones still has a long ways to go before he's ready to step on an NBA floor, as he gets pushed around quite a bit inside the paint and doesn't always offer the type of intensity, toughness or fight you hope to see from a player his size. How much of this was due to his lack of strength and experience as a freshman is something NBA teams will want to learn more about as Jones enters his sophomore year, as he clearly has the tools to be a very solid piece on this end of the floor if he improves his intensity-level and focus.
On a similar note, Jones was just an average rebounder on both ends of the court last season, often looking flat-footed as missed shots came off the rim. He needs to do a better job of boxing out and pursuing loose balls with greater toughness and intensity, even if his awareness here leaves something to be desired, something that's also reflected in his lack of assists and steals.
Jones is somewhat of a tweener, not quite big or strong enough to project as a centerthe position he plays at Vanderbilt--in the NBA, but also not really showing some key skills teams like to see from power forwards, such as passing, ball-handling or perimeter shooting ability. Defensively he might actually be better suited at the power forward spot, and he appears to have the mobility to do so, so it will be interesting to see how his skill-level evolves.
Still in an early stage of his development, Jones has a lot of interesting attributes that make him a prospect NBA teams will definitely want to keep track of, even if he's a raw prospect at this stage. Vanderbilt will have a very young squad once again, particularly in the backcourt, so Jones will have to be a major factor on both ends of the floor for them to be competitive in the SEC.
Strengths: -Very long wingspan -Frame that will fill out in time -Terrific instincts defensively -Excellent athlete -Runs floor extremely well -Very quick second bounce -Goes well out of area for offensive rebounds -Makes plays above the rim thanks to his solid leaping ability -Capable of stepping out and knocking down a mid-range jumper -Shot 73% from the free throw line in the EYBL -Has no strength to establish position, but fights for space inside regardless -Tremendous shot-blocking instincts
Weaknesses: -Very limited offensively -Frame might take 4-5 years to fill out -Doesn't have the strength or footwork to play with his back to the basket -Might struggle to defender stronger centers in college. Does not appear to be agile enough laterally to guard power forwards -Doesn't box out on the defensive glass
Outlook: Springy big man with terrific length. Plays with very good energy and makes his presence felt regularly on the defensive end. Still a long ways away strength-wise and in terms of his offensive polish, but has excellent potential to grow into as he continues to mature physically.