There’s much that stands out when looking back on Derrick Jones Jr.’s inaugural press conference as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. From the tranquil, tangible calm he exuded to the confidence in his answers — he declared it was going to be a “special year,” then doubled down on Portland being the best fit — it was difficult to not leave that press conference intrigued by both his genuine mystique and his role in returning the Blazers’ defense to respectability.
Eight months later, though, it’s safe to suggest that there’s mutual regret. Jones Jr. enters 2021-22 in the final year of his two-year, $19 million deal, and because of the DNPs he accumulated under Terry Stotts, he’s likely a likely opt-in, given his cratered value. Whoever takes on the position as the next head coach will be inheriting an offensively-brilliant roster but with question marks on how to best utilize a player of Jones Jr.’s caliber. Here are a few potential building blocks going forward.
Making better use of Jones Jr.’s cutting ability:
Save for a gravity-defying dunk here or a corner 3-pointer there, Jones Jr.’s offense wasn’t plentiful. In those moments where he did provide serviceable, consistent offensive play, it generally came through one common variable: his ability to find crevices in the defense.
Putting a number to it, Jones Jr. was among the NBA’s most ambitious cutters, with 21.0 percent of his production in that ecosystem. In today’s NBA, bigs are normally the most successful cutters, given the luxury of feasting on teammates’ penetrations in that dunker’s spot. Jones Jr., though, was successful enough to rival almost all; of the 35 players that surpassed him in points per possession, 33 of them were centers.
The overwhelming majority of Jones Jr.’s success as a cutter came through a familiar template: a Lillard pick-and-roll with one of either Jusuf Nurkic or Enes Kanter. The defense becomes compromised, having to both respect Lillard’s ability to do Lillard things, as well as shifting someone over to “tag” one of those bigs on the roll. Timing played right, Jones Jr. was able to bend defenses with efficient shots at the rim. Here’s one example on a ball screen with Lillard and Carmelo Anthony.
And another, for good measure:
The drive from Damian Lillard is so key as is the reject in pick and roll. Jordan is right at the level for when he comes off. Brown doesn't force him into the screen and Dame attacks left. Now Harden has to help and this is where the DJJ cut from the corner is tough. Easy lob. pic.twitter.com/s9JlJgfmC9— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 24, 2021
Put a different way, Jones Jr. was one of just 58 players occupying at least 75 cutter possessions, and his 1.23 points per possession were sandwiched in between Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons (1.10) and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.34).
On Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed that Clippers’ assistant coach Chauncey Billups, Spurs’ assistant coach Becky Hammon, and Nets’ assistant coach Mike D’Antoni were among those receiving second interviews for Portland’s head coaching job. That could be inspiring for Jones Jr., considering trends. The Spurs and Clippers were among the NBA’s most infrequent teams when utilizing cuts, but when they did seek it out, few were more effective. In these 2021 NBA Playoffs, no team has utilized more cuts than Brooklyn. It’s unclear as to how involved each of them were in those play designs, but it’s clear that those were tenets in their respective offense. Players such as Terance Mann and Keldon Johnson had success as cutters in those schemes, and could be a model to look into going forward.
There’s a reasonable case that Stotts didn’t utilize Jones Jr. as effectively as possible. After catching 37 lobs in 2019-20, the boundless forward saw that number cut to just 14 in 2020-21. It goes without saying that Portland’s guards aren’t the greatest lob passers, but there’s enough tape to suggest that they’ve built a rapport. It’s overstated. When you’re 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan and a vertical leap higher than your field goal percentage, you’re going to be a tough, tough target to miss. If there’s a starting point for a redemptive 2021-22, this is it.
Play him more to his “hot” zones:
Just play along. It’s ambitious classifying anything Derrick Jones Jr. does outside of the paint as a “hot zone.” Lukewarm, maybe? Mild? In any case, it’s a given in a Lillard-led offense that shooters in deep corners are going to have tons of real estate, solely off of the attention he commands. In those instances where Jones Jr. is the shooter, his numbers suggest it’s more fruitful if he’s doing that in the left corner, as opposed to the right.
Dating back to the 2018-19 season, the Blazers’ forward is a respectable 35.8 percent on 106 attempts in the left corner, as opposed to a grotesque 25.9 percent on 108 attempts in the right corner. It makes sense in theory: that left-shoulder is automatically aligned with the rim in the left corner, making for an easier shot. Of course, on any given offensive possession, players aren’t likely to stagnate in the same spot for the entire possession, especially if Portland’s new head coach prioritizes ball movement and player movement. But, given what we know is guaranteed in life — death, taxes, and Damian Lillard creating on pick-and-rolls that get him going back to the middle of the floor — putting Jones Jr. in ideal situations in that left corner doesn’t appear all too difficult to scheme up.
In that left corner, Jones Jr. was actually a 41.4 percent shooter on 29 attempts, and had 56-40-73 percentage splits over a 21-game sample size from Jan. 24 to Mar. 16. The Blazers won’t have to worry about sacrificing that aforementioned cutting ability. In his best offensive game of the season, a loss to the Nuggets on Feb. 23rd, he mixed in sneaky cuts with 3-point shots that tested defensive boundaries. That, and, well, Michael Porter Jr. was present that day. It’s of painful irony that Jones Jr.’s best game came against the Nuggets. If only Portland and Denver played in, I don’t know, the first round of the Playoffs. If only, right? Let’s move on.
Put Jones Jr. in more “hustle” positions:
Derrick Jones Jr.’s incremental improvements as a shooter certainly deserve merit but make no mistake about it: the Blazers forward is at his absolute apex when he’s in the air, chasing down the ball and making plays that way. Tasked with being the Blazers’ next head coach, this would be the focal point when looking into how to best use him in 2021-22.
According to BBall Index’s tracking, Jones Jr. ranked in the 72nd percentile in putbacks per 75 possessions and the 80th percentile in offensive rebounds per game. He certainly took some of the onus upon himself to hunt after missed shots, something that likely wasn’t easy, considering how porous Portland’s fast break defense was at times. Does it behoove the Blazers to seek out even more ways to exploit that?
It comes with the expectation that the Blazers’ defense will be much better than in years past. Should that be the case, that opens the door for more defense-to-offense plays out in transition, a Jones Jr. specialty. If there’s a best-case scenario, that’s certainly the one. If there is a major knock on his game, it’s that his handle isn’t quite tight enough to create or make plays on the fly. It wouldn’t even be a bad idea to see Portland run him slip and short on pick-and-rolls to produce ideal situations.
It’s all hypothesis at this point, but there’s certainly a world in which Jones Jr. benefits under a new coaching regime. The range of players he can guard — he ranked in the 100th percentile among defensive versatility — shouldn’t go unrequited even if he’s not the point-of-attack defender Portland needs.
At 24-years-old and playing for his next contract, the pressure will be on for him to tap into new areas of his game. But needless to say, having the proper guidance would go a long way towards helping him fly just a little bit higher in 2021-22.