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Jones Jr. is Key to Unlocking Blazers’ Offensive & Defensive Potential

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Derrick Jones Jr. has the upside and athleticism to address a handful of the Trail Blazers’ deficiencies.

NBA: Miami Heat at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers’ splashiest move outside of the trade for Robert Covington was the acquisition of Derrick Jones Jr., a 23-year-old free agent forward that carved out a role with the Heat. The Blazers netted Jones’ services via a two-year, $19 million contract that features a player option on the tail end. Regardless of Jones’ favorable age and athletic ability, his prospective fit in Portland’s rotation has triggered a fair amount of hand wringing in the aftermath of the move.

Are those concerns over the size of Jones’ contract and his fit with the Blazers warranted? In order to better understand the former Heat forward’s role, let’s look at his respective strengths and weaknesses in order to see how they fit inside coach Terry Stotts’ scheme.

Burgeoning Vertical Spacer, Switchable Defender

If you aren’t a basketball junkie and you’ve heard of Jones prior to his arrival in Portland, it is most likely due to his dunking exploits. Buoyed by a 48-inch vertical and a 7-foot wingspan, Jones is tucked into an elite group of physically gifted NBA players.

Outside of dunk competitions, Jones’ physical tools yield serious results inside the restricted area. Last season, he connected on 74 percent of his 185 attempts at the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass, that placed Jones in the 94th percentile of at-the-rim finishers at his position. For comparison, Moe Harkless topped out at the 62nd percentile in his most-efficient season at the rim during his tenure in Portland (2018-19).

Defensively, Jones can cover ground quickly, which led to his success in the Heat’s periodic use of zone-based schemes. In that setup, he proved he can hold his own, at least for a single possession, against every position. Just like his finishing above the rim, Jones maximizes his athletic gifts on the defensive end. Last year, he posted per 36 averages of 1.5 steals and one block in the regular season.

On the glass, Jones is a top-tier offensive rebounder at his position. With the Heat, he averaged 1.1 offensive rebounds per game. That might appear modest on the surface, but his offensive rebounding percentage, how many of the Heat’s missed field goals he recovered, clocked in at 5.2 percent—putting him in the 93rd percentile at his position group per Cleaning the Glass.

Shooting Concerns, Limited Creation

The Blazers have journeyed down this road before. For the overwhelming majority of the post-Aldridge era, coach Terry Stotts has pieced together a forward rotation that features plus defenders that struggle from beyond the arc. On the shooting accuracy spectrum, Jones is more Evan Turner than Rodney Hood.

In the regular season, Jones connected on a paltry 28 percent of his three-pointers. Opposing defenses often left him alone on the perimeter and cheated towards the paint. Off the dribble, Jones does not have a track record of generating his own offense. His effective field goal percentage craters if a shot attempt is preceded by more than three dribbles (31.6 percent).

How Does It All Fit Together?

Three-point shooting is a crucial component to modern floor spacing, but it does not make up the entire floor-spacing engine. Having an effective roll man and/or lob finisher is another way to generate defense-crushing gravity. Jones might suffer from the same shooting deficiencies as Al-Farouq Aminu and Harkless, but he is undeniably a more efficient finisher.

Due to his rim-running and cutting prowess, Jones garners more attention than his frontcourt predecessors. If Jones’ defender packs the paint in an effort to stymie a Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll, the former Heat forward has proven he can rise above the defense for baseline finishes. His strengths on offense pair neatly with Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian big fella has expanded his game to the high post. With Jones in the fold, Nurkic has a top-shelf finisher to target underneath.

Heat center Bam Adebayo torched defenses that lost track of Jones along the baseline. Nurkic, while not the established passer that Adebayo is, should be able to do much of the same. Outside of high-low actions, Jones also blossomed into an electric roll man in Miami.

Just look at this dunk montage from last season; toss out the transition finishes (they are fun, though) and focus on how Jones makes himself available to both big men and guards.

I loved Jake Layman and I was often a Harkless apologist, but neither of those two hold a candle to Jones’ ability to finish off cuts.

In terms of spacing, is it the same as having a dead-eye three-point shooter in the corner? No. Unfortunately, the 2020 free agent market was not overflowing with those types of players, and the ones who were available earned contracts that exceeded the amount Jones received from the Blazers (Joe Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Davis Bertans). Inserting a high-flying finisher that erupts out of the corner if left unattended is a close second. Jones fits that mold.

In Context

If you hear someone explain that a single player acquisition in the offseason looks good/bad in a vacuum, prepare to absorb that information with a grain of salt. Offseason movements, more often than not, occur outside of a vacuum. Jones is a logical, if not ideal, pickup if you look at the Blazers’ moves in concert.

Hood’s return allows the Blazers to mitigate a potential lack of frontcourt shooting by mixing and matching forward pairings. Reserve shifts that feature Enes Kanter, a center with better shooting range than Hassan Whiteside, should allow Jones to operate with room inside or near the dunker’s spot.

Most importantly, the continued development of Gary Trent Jr. and Covington’s arrival pave the way for the Blazers to feature lineups with multiple non-Nurkic plus defenders. That is a noteworthy threshold to cross. In a superb analysis of lineup optimization, Nylon Calculus projected that a generic lineup featuring three plus defenders, where only one player is a big man, should produce a 108.1 defensive rating. In the 2019-20 season, the Blazers posted a defensive rating of 114.3, the fourth-worst rating in the league. If Portland can reach a defensive rating of just 110, their overall net rating—unlike last season—would be positive based on a similar output on the offensive end.

Untapped Potential

Jones is 23 years old and far from a finished product. If he can improve his scoring efficiency outside of the arc, he has the potential to blossom into a truly dynamic two-way threat. Judging by the modest improvements in his shooting numbers, that window is open.

Last season, Jones attempted 132 shots from distance, surpassing the total combined amount of three-pointers he had attempted in his entire career up to that point. He only converted 28 percent of those attempts, but Jones displayed that he is increasing his comfort level with beyond-the-arc looks. From the free throw line, he upped his accuracy to a career-best 77.2 percent, showing he possesses the ingredients for a more fruitful shooting touch.

In comparison, again, Harkless was 22 years old when he arrived in Portland. Yes. The Blazers paid less to acquire his services, initially. But Harkless arrived with similar flaws in his shooting efficiency (30.8 percent from distance in Orlando) and he eventually became a serviceable three-point shooter. Outside of Harkless, former high-flying Clippers forward Blake Griffin added a passable jump shot to his arsenal once he was in the NBA. In the 2013-14 campaign, Griffin crossed the 70-percent threshold at the free throw line for the first time. During the following season, Griffin moved above the 20-percent benchmark on his three-point attempts, a level he maintained until last year.

Postseason Outlook

One concern that has emerged over the weekend is the reality that Jones fell out of the Heat’s rotation in the playoffs. As Miami inched closer to the NBA Finals, coach Erik Spoelstra relied heavily on a seven-man rotation (I am not counting sporadic, single-minute appearances from Solomon Hill).

These are the frontcourt players that played in a reduced rotation for the Heat:

  • Bam Adebayo (2020 All-Star)
  • Jimmy Butler (2019-20 All-NBA Third Team)
  • Andre Iguodala (former NBA Finals MVP)
  • Jae Crowder (signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Suns)

The Blazers do not have those players in their current rotation. Coach Stotts did not have the luxury of reducing his rotation by choice as the Blazers were dispatched from the postseason in five games. If Jones clicks with his new teammates and continues to develop, he adds a wrinkle to the Blazers’ playoffs playbook that was sorely missed last season.