Damian Jones isn't having the kind of June he envisioned when he first declared for the NBA Draft last fall. A good, but not great, junior season pushed him from mock draft lotteries to the tail end of the first round. Then, a torn pectoral muscle sent him to surgery midway through the month.
But his summer is bound to get a lot better come Thursday.
Jones has been a staple of the latter end of the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, where an established team like the Warriors, Spurs, or Raptors could give him the time and space to develop into an effective pro. While the Vanderbilt center may have fallen short of expectations this winter, he's done nothing but improve his game over the course of three years in Nashville. Since arriving on campus in 2013, he's improved his field goal percentage, rebound rate, scoring rate, and win shares per minute -- while reducing his turnover rate -- in each season he spent under Kevin Stallings.
As a projected late round pick, he stands to follow in the footsteps of another Commodore big man who improved by leaps and bounds as a professional: Festus Ezeli. Jones has a more polished offensive game than Ezeli did when he was selected in the 2012 NBA Draft, but both are/were raw coils of athletic potential and NBA ready bodies. While Ezeli readies himself for a big pay raise after running through his rookie contract, Jones stands on the precipice of his.
Athleticism. Jones isn't a massive center, but he makes up for any shortcomings on that end with an 8'11 standing reach and 36'' no-step vertical leap -- third among NBA Draft prospects this season. That allows him to do things like this on the court.
He has solid straight line speed and can up and down the floor in a hurry, and that speed makes him especially dangerous moving towards the basket on offense. It also makes him a rangy defender who can recover on pick plays and get back to the ball with minimal negative effects.
Pick and roll offense. Vanderbilt's offense was designed around finding Jones an outlet in the paint, but as 2016 wore on he proved he could be similarly effective at the top of the key. His athleticism made him a hard target for opposing bigs, and one misstep often sent Jones careening towards the basket where he finished with authority. He's a solid enough dribbler than he can cut through the lane without losing the ball, and his hands are solid enough to be any capable point guard's best friend in the half court set.
Jones's bread-and-butter at the next level will be scoring from the low block, but he can add some unexpected punch away from the basket as well.
Hyper-athletic defense. I guess this fits in with the first point, but Jones is a strong weakside shot blocker who rotates into position and swats shots into the stands volleyball style when he gets the opportunity. His form still needs work, as a high foul rate suggests, and he may rely on the coiled springs he calls legs rather than patient defense too much to be effective early in his NBA career. More jarringly, he seemed tentative at times and really only went into beast mode when someone -- usually the referees -- got under his skin. Still, the instincts are there, so expect Jones to make some highlight reel blocks from the first day he arrives in the league.
Production and consistency. Jones declared for the 2016 draft in anticipation of a monster junior season. While he certainly had his moments and found himself on the All-SEC First Team, he failed to take the step into stardom many had predicted. Foul trouble helped limit his minutes (and Vanderbilt was 2-5 in games where Jones fouled out), but he also had performances against quality teams like LSU, Baylor, and Kentucky where he played 30+ minutes and failed to stand out. Indeed, Jones's best games seemed to either come against lackluster competition (Wofford, Wake Forest, and Georgia) or in Vanderbilt losses (Kansas, Arkansas, Dayton, Texas or Mississippi State).
Counterpoint: Jones KILLED Florida in two extremely meaningful wins this season (23.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) and his defense (five blocks helped carry the 'Dores to their best win of the year when they beat Texas A&M at home.
Foul trouble. NCAA officials hated Damian Jones. Hated, hated, hated him. He racked up fouls for infractions like looking at Tyler Ulis, sneezing while in the paint, and humming the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers theme song during a timeout. Those whistles were what cut his minutes per game from 29 to 26 as a junior and generally kept him from fulfilling his potential on both sides of the court last winter. It's not going to get any better as a rookie in the NBA.
Free throw shooting. 53.6 percent last season. It's always an adventure with Dame at the line.
Damian Jones fills Festus Ezeli's spot in the Bay Area, getting drafted 30th overall by the Golden State Warriors.