In the Portland Trail Blazers’ 115-107 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Blazers got help from both of their “juniors”. Gary Trent Jr. put on a show by hitting seven threes on his way to 28 points. Derrick Jones Jr. held a defensive masterclass, handling and even bothering LeBron James at times. Take whatever you want from the third game of the season, but this was a good win over the best team in the league in a game where the Lakers were actually trying to not lose.
We’ve already talked extensively about how great Gary Trent is, so I want to focus on Jones. If you just looked at the box score from Blazers-Lakers, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed by his stat line. He only had five points while shooting 1 of 9 from the field. But when you watch closely what he’s done in these opening games, you start getting a feel for what he’s brought so far and what he could bring in the future.
Let’s take a look at what the best version of Derrick Jones Jr. looks like.
The thing that literally jumps off the screen is how dang high Derrick Jones Jr. gets. He has been reported to have a vertical as high as 48 inches. The moment you watch him actually jump, it suddenly feels like anything under 50 seems incorrect. This tweet explained it well:
every photo of DJJ in midair looks more like he fell from the ceiling than it does he jumped from the floor— Mr. Jackpots (Punished) (@Cosmis) December 29, 2020
Having a massive vertical doesn’t just look cool. It has purpose on both ends. Offensively, it allows Jones, Jr. to elevate above defenders to finish at the rim. Last season he made 72% of his shots inside of 10 feet, on par with Giannis Antentokoumpo.
This isn’t a particularly great lob pass from Damian Lillard and it truly doesn’t matter. Jones can quite literally catch just about anything as long as it’s in the box. It’s not even the craziest lob we’ve ever seen from Jones (this one is), but it was his first in a Blazers uniform, so it has to get a mention.
This lob demonstrates Jones utilizing the baseline cut. Lillard and CJ McCollum naturally draw multiple defenders whenever they touch the ball. On the lob above, Lillard did exactly that. With only undrafted rookie Jae’Sean Tate available to guard the baseline. Jones can easily rise above him.
Here’s another baseline dunk for your viewing pleasure. This time, Covington drives to the hoop and draws Marc Gasol. Jones catches LeBron James ball-watching and sneaks right behind him. Covington is a solid reactionary passer and is able to get it to Jones for an easy dunk. It’s the exact action you want if you’re looking to get Jones two points: the driver draws the interior defender, Jones sneaks right behind them, and easy buckets ensue.
Jones uncharacteristically misses a pretty easy reverse layup here (I kind of wish he just dunked it), but it’s the right play and one the Blazers should look to make often when he and Jusuf Nurkic are on the court. Nurk has great touch on these floating passes, and he can deliver accurate balls to Jones pretty easily when he’s cutting from the corner. Give Nurk the ball on the elbow and he should be able to find Jones no problem.
When it comes to shooting, Jones has traditionally been a non-factor. He’s only shot over 30% from the arc once. That was during the 2018-19 season when he shot 30.8% from three on 1.5 attempts a game. As great as he has been scoring at the rim, his outside scoring has not been strong.
At least starting to shoot it without hesitation. Jones has not been afraid to let it fly from deep early and often throughout his three games in Portland. Against the Lakers it didn’t work out well for him — although he couldn’t make much of anything in that game — but in the season opener against the Jazz he ended up making 3 of 5 shots from outside.
Setting screens off the ball for one of McCollum or Lillard is a great way to get defenders more worried about them than you. Royce O’Neal tries to stick with McCollum before Donovan Mitchell tells him to stay on Jones. Sensing an opening, Jones lets it fly and drains it, no hesitation whatsoever.
This is one of two corner threes that Jones hit against Utah. It’s my favorite because he sees Joe Ingles coming and just shoots it anyways. That corner three will be especially important for Jones because of reasons mentioned above. If defenders have to suddenly respect his outside shooting, then that gives him more opportunities to sneak past them for lobs and easy layups. The easier the shots are, the better.
When it comes to shooting, ideally Jones would make all his threes at a Gary Trent Jr.-esque clip, but that’s not realistic. But can he push his outside shooting percentage closer to the mid-30s? What if he shot between 33% and 35%, which is not particularly great, but just enough that you don’t want to leave him super wide open? That’s really the hope with Jones.
Jones isn’t getting $19 million over two years because he’s an offensive powerhouse. He’s a solid defender, and he’s shown how good he can be early on. Against the Lakers he racked up three blocks, including these nasty ones on LeBron.
That first block was a great play. First, Jones picked LeBron up full court. That’s something only Gary Trent Jr. and maybe Trevor Ariza could’ve done last year. Second, he showed incredible recovery speed here after getting screened by Montrezl Harrell, who did a good job switching the screen up on Jones. Third, it was a block on LeBron James! That’s always cool, especially when he’s wearing a Lakers uniform.
The second play isn’t too dissimilar from the first block. Harrell sets a screen, Jones gets caught, but he recovers so quickly that he can still block LeBron. Note Enes Kanter’s role in the play. Kanter is bad defensively, but he is a big body who’s theoretically strong enough to make scoring somewhat difficult as long as he just stands there. Kanter pretty much only does that, and Jones, as expected, is athletic enough to block it when Kanter (marginally) slows down LeBron.
That’s going to be huge for Portland. The Blazers brought guys like Jones and Covington to Portland to be excellent team defenders, guys who can make up for the shortcomings of other players. Jones has those shortcomings himself, being so skinny that Harrell can just push him out of the way. But his athleticism is so great that he’ll always have moments like the second clip.
We’re going to see Jones take on the toughest defensive assignment a lot it seems, as he’s already taken LeBron and James Harden on. This is smart considering the rest of the starting lineup — even Covington — is best suited for more team defense situations. It’s not always going to be perfect, but Jones is the best option.
Take this play for example. Harden had an amazing game against Portland, but the Rockets struggled from three in the third quarter and it was because of plays like this from Jones where he uses his long arms to contest shots and make life difficult.
It’s not always going to be perfect with Jones. His shot probably won’t get much better. While he is a plus defender, he’ll always be somewhat limited by his slender frame. But the idealized version of Jones has already shown itself in these first three games. If Terry Stotts can find a way to unlock that version of Jones often enough, his Portland tenure will be just fine.