The race for the 2021 NBA Playoffs is heating up, and as usual, the Portland Trail Blazers are in the thick of it. Last night’s loss against the Phoenix Suns was huge. The Blazers are now in danger of falling into the play-in tournament. But through all the opportunity, chaos, and drama, one player remains conspicuously absent. Derrick Jones, Jr., a starter for 43 games this season, is not in the late-season rotation for Head Coach Terry Stotts.
Though he was a large part of Portland’s off-season signing campaign last summer, Jones has not played in 9 of the last 16 games. The most he’s played during that span is 23 minutes in a contest against the Houston Rockets that was never particularly close. The Blazers were missing Carmelo Anthony that night and Jones helped fill the void. Beyond that single evening, he’s barely registered.
How does someone go from an easy 30 minutes a night to DNP-CD just like that? Let’s dive into it.
Let’s start by breaking down what we know Derrick Jones Jr. can do. He may be able to literally jump out of the Moda Center if needed. The dude just has hops. There’s not that much more to it.
I love this video because it isn’t even a dunk. He doesn’t need to dunk to show off his incredible hangtime, burst, and general contortion ability. Last year he shot 74% at the rim, which is an absurdly high figure. His 65% number this year isn’t quite as high, but that’s still solid.
We also know that Jones, Jr. is a decent team defender, someone you won’t catch falling asleep defensively, at least. His block percentage of 2.1% ranks in the 99th percentile among wings and teams shoot 1.4% worse from the field when he’s on the floor (per Cleaning the Glass). He’s just an incredibly long and athletic player who generally knows how to use those tools to disrupt.
This highlight clip—showing DJ’s possessions from Monday’s game against the Rockets—starts with a textbook steal from Jones. He just pokes it right out of Kelly Olynyk’s hands and takes it down the court. Luckily for the Rockets, there was no fast break opportunity, so no Airplane Mode on this play.
This is another one of my favorite plays from this past season. Any type of fast break should result in easy buckets for the New Orleans Pelicans, especially with Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson leading the charge. But DJ flies in to get the initial block on Ingram and then doesn’t let Zion run him over and instead blocks him too. It’s an impressive sequence.
All the above things seem like good things, so why isn’t Jones a part of the rotation? For starters, the offense just isn’t there outside of the at-the-rim production, and that production is also down. Jones’ true shooting percentage of 57.8% is almost entirely propped up by his two point percentage (61.7%). He’s shooting 32.1% from three this season, which is not particularly great.
His shooting accuracy is just not good enough anywhere on the floor. His 65% shooting clip at the rim is only a slight positive, rating in the 64th percentile. Jones doesn’t rank higher than the 32nd percentile at any of the other distances that Cleaning the Glass has numbers for. He’s in the 27th percentile for threes and the ninth percentile for mid-range shots (he’s shooting 27% from that range). There’s just not nearly enough diversity in his shot to be scared of him offensively.
Defensively, he hasn’t actually helped this team much. I’ve actually praised him a couple times for being solid defensively, and even argued that his defensive versatility was his biggest asset coming off the bench. Looking back, that impact seems to have been overstated. His defensive estimated plus-minus sits at a meager -0.8 and his DARKO defensive plus-minus is at an unimpressive 0.1.
When he’s on the floor, the Blazers actually give up almost a full point more. Those numbers could have been slightly affected by his move to the bench and Jusuf Nurkic’s return. Nurkic coming back skewed the numbers because he makes the Blazers that much better on defense. That return also happened right around the time DJ was shown to the bench. But still, it’s not a good sign when your main calling card is defense and you can’t really demonstrate it clearly.
It’s important to note that the trade for Norman Powell changed the landscape for Portland and Jones. It solidified that Jones as a bench player. Powell is better offensively in just about every facet of the game. He hasn’t even shot that well since he got here, only hitting threes at a 35.2% clip, way lower than his 45% clip in Toronto. While that certainly hurts Powell’s on-court numbers, it doesn’t affect his overall impact as much.
The big difference between a player like Powell and one like Jones is that Powell’s offensive reputation means that teams still have to worry about him. You can’t leave Powell open or just let him drive at the rim.
Opponents aren’t as worried about Jones. He only broke the double-digit scoring mark 13 times in 57 regular season games this year. He just doesn’t have enough versatility or firepower to make you worried about what he does offensively. Powell is a three-level scorer that with the gravity to open the floor for other players. DJ is a one-level guy with little to no gravity.
When thinking about Jones, I can’t stop remembering that this was exactly what I was worried about when the Blazers signed him. Jones can be really exciting when he’s dunking like a mad man and finishing cool alley-oops. That was never going to move the needle for the Blazers, though.
Portland wanted defenders this off-season, but the didn’t necessarily need another team-defense guy like Jones. They got that in Robert Covington. They needed someone who could be a point-of-attack defender, someone who would fight to the nail to stop whoever was in front of him. Instead, they got someone who does what RoCo does, but does it worse and without the offense to boot.
In the end, it seems that Derrick Jones Jr. has found himself in the same position as he was back in Miami: at the end of the bench, praying for spot minutes in the playoffs should they come his way. And that’s really a bummer, because like I said, it’s really fun when DJ throws down a dunk that defies everything we thought human beings could do. But highlights don’t always produce wins. Right now, it looks like Airplane Mode will be grounded for the remainder of his time in Portland.