If Damian Jones can continue his rapid rate of improvement, look for his name to be one of the first seven called in next year’s draft. Not many people saw Jones becoming one of the most highly sought-out juniors in the nation just three years ago. He was a bit under-the-radar in high school, as ESPN ranked him its 81st-best prospect and 20th-best power forward in the class of 2013. For what it’s worth, Rivals ranked him 77th overall, while he was unranked among the top 100 on Scout.
Jones played on the AAU circuit with more prominent names like Lakers forward Julius Randle and Duke’s Matt Jones and was only ranked in the top 100 by scouting services thanks to his considerable upside. On Sept. 2, 2012, Jones committed to Vanderbilt after a visit, where he majors in engineering science at the 34th-best engineering program in the nation. It was Vanderbilt’s first commitment of their 2013 class and a potential building block of their roster.
At a slender 6-foot-9, 220 pounds with bouncy athleticism and length, Jones was a bit of a tweener in high school, lacking the size of a center without the range of a power forward. At Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jones teamed with Brian Bridgewater (now a junior forward on LSU) to win a state title as a senior. Jones averaged 15.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 blocks and was voted the 5A Outstanding Player during their title run.
Jones went on to have a stellar freshman campaign, averaging 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks and getting named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team. He showed glimpses of improved offensive touch and grew to 6-foot-10, but still struggled to rebound the ball at times. The glimpses he displayed were both frustrating and promising, but consistency lacked occasionally and it’s what made people so intrigued about what Jones could bring into his sophomore season.
Before Jones’s sophomore year began, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told NOLA.com that the big man was “probably the best player in our program.” Stallings was expecting big things from Jones and described the positives in his game in great detail:
“He’s a very, very effective inside scorer, and he’s a presence at the goal with his athleticism,” Stallings said. “He really is a supreme athlete who can block shots and needs to probably block more shots than he does. He’s a big-time athlete with touch around the goal and he’s developing some touch away from the goal. But he’s a guy that can score and hopefully give us a presence at the goal defensively.”
That last sentence came to fruition as a sophomore, as Jones increased his blocks per game to 2.0 while showing improvement in his rebounding (5.7 per to 6.5), efficiency (54.3 percent to 56.1, which led the SEC), range and passing (seven assists total as a freshman to 26 as a sophomore). He was a First-Team All-SEC selection by the league’s coaches, and that immense potential many saw in high school was finally being put together slowly but surely. There was chatter that the big man could test the waters and enter the NBA Draft, but on March 30, he put those words to rest and announced he’d return for his junior campaign.
Now entering that junior season, Jones’s game and body have transformed. Standing 7-feet tall with a 7-2 wingspan on a 245-pound frame, one of his perceived weaknesses has been thrown out the window. He has great size for a center in today’s NBA, paired with excellent athleticism and strength. If he can continue to extend his range and work on his ability to box out, the sky is truly the limit for his potential. Oftentimes it takes big men the longest to grow into their bodies, and that especially seems to be the case for Jones as he continues to grow.
With another successful season improving his game and becoming more well rounded, Jones’s name should continue to be in the top 10 in many mock drafts over the course of the next 10 months. With the level of rapid improvement he’s shown so far, expect at least another half-step of growth, which should be enough to guarantee a lottery selection in the 2016 draft.