When the list of the 2017 NBA Slam Dunk Contest participants came out, one of the first things NBA fans had to do was Google Derrick Jones Jr. Jones was one of four players to make the contest but entered All-Star weekend as an unknown to most basketball fans.
The high-flying player just turned 20 years old and has plenty of potential. He is an undrafted rookie who signed with the Phoenix Suns but has spent a good portion of the 2016-17 season in the NBA D-League for the Northern Arizona Suns. He is the only player in the history of the dunk contest to have played in both the D-League and NBA in the same season.
Jones has become somewhat of an internet sensation with the amount of jaw-dropping highlights he has produced. The 6’7″ and 190 pound forward has no problem getting above the rim.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Jones Is the First Slam Dunk Contest Participant to Play in the NBA & D-League in the Same Season
Jones is on the Phoenix Suns roster, but has spent a good amount of time on Phoenix’s NBA D-League affiliate Northern Arizona Suns. He was named a Slam Dunk Contest participant despite only playing 11 NBA minutes.
Jones averaged 15 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg and 1.39 spg during his time in the D-League.
According to Arizona Central, Jones is the first player in the contest to have also played in the D-League during the same season. The D-League is the NBA’s version of baseball’s minor leagues. Each NBA team has a D-League affiliate they can send players down to help improve their games.
Jones told AZ Central that he fought to be one of the players in the contest.
“They had to figure out if I was going to be in there or not because I haven’t played that many minutes and I don’t even have a dunk in a game. I told them I’d give them 100 percent. I’m never going to turn down an opportunity like this, especially my rookie year. I’ve always wanted to participate in All-Star weekend, whether it’s the All-Star Game, the Rookie-Sophomore game, the dunk contest, anything. It’s one of the best times you can have as a basketball player,” Jones told AZ Central.
2. He Was Undrafted Coming Out of UNLV
Jones played just one season at UNLV. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the NCAA nullified his ACT score which caused him to be ineligible to continue playing for the Rebels. During the 2015-16 season, Jones averaged 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
Despite going undrafted, it did not deter Jones. He was signed by the Suns as an undrafted free agent. He spoke about the process on a recent D-League Instagram post.
“I’m on the Phoenix Suns’ roster as an undrafted free agent rookie. I mean, I pray every night to God; it’s just a blessing that I’m here. I’m just happy to wake up every morning playing the game that I love and being paid for it,” Jones said.
3. Jones Claims to Have a 48″ Vertical
According to AZ Central, Jones claims to have a 48″ vertical jump. Jones had his vertical measured in 2015. According to DraftExpress, Jones had a max vertical of 42.5″ and a no-step vertical of 34″. It is possible Jones has been able to increase his vertical in the last two years. Regardless of the official number, Jones has proved he has no problem getting off the ground.
“He is in the upper tier [of NBA players with the highest vertical leaps], on top of his length. Guys may have a 38 or 39 [inch vertical], but have short or average arms. He is really a freak, man,” Ellis told The Daily Courier.
Jones created buzz after he practiced his dunking before a recent Suns game as the above video shows. It was a preview of his dunk contest performance.
4. He Grew Up in a Rough Part of Philadelphia
Jones is from just outside of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania. It is also home to other NBA players such as Jameer Nelson, Tyreke Evans and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He spoke with NBA.com about the utilizing the challenging environment he grew up in to his advantage.
“Coming from Chester, it being a violent city, not a lot of people make it out of there, not a lot of people make it to the age of 21. I’m just so thankful that my father, my mother and my grandmother got me out of the situation I was in. I’m a much better player and person today. It just means everything. Where I’m from, that’s who I am. It’s the reason I’m that scrapper. Where I’m from, you had to be. Either you play your heart out, or you’re going to get punked. I learned that when I was about 9 or 10. I never let anybody punk me no matter how big or small they are,” Jones told NBA.com.
5. “The Airplane” Draws Inspiration From Vince Carter
Jones nickname of “The Airplane” fits his game given his ability to glide through the air. He draws inspiration from Vince Carter, a legendary NBA dunker.
“I really watched a lot of Vince Carter because he was the best dunker of all-time. I love the 360 windmill he did. That’s the dunk I did to win my first dunk contest,” Jones told NBA.com.
Despite being known for his dunking ability, Jones believes it his defense that will carve out a career for him in the NBA. He has not had the easiest path to the league, but that has not stopped him from pursuing his dreams. He spoke with the D-League about his motivation.
“I’m pretty sure everybody expects to get drafted. Me, I was thinking about it, I was hoping and praying, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my downfall. I’ve always been the underdog all my life. It’s nothing new to me… I’m chasing my dream, I’m chasing it until my legs can’t move any more,” Jones told the D-League.