Baylor's Jones finally tapping into potential; more NBA draft notebook

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The big man out of Kentucky could spend the next three-plus weeks vacationing in Barbados and likely still be taken first overall, as he's living the life of luxury that comes with being seen as the cream of this draft class crop. But Baylor's Perry Jones III is the poster boy of a different kind, the kind of prospect whose stock could change significantly depending on the workouts and interviews with teams that take place leading up to the big day on June 28.

As such, Jones and his representatives devised a new plan in this eleventh hour stage of the process. Despite being seen as a power forward during his prep days and two collegiate seasons (a face-up four with the ability to go inside, to be more specific), Jones' small forward skills are being emphasized now in an attempt to make him even more marketable to the many talent evaluators who no longer see him as a top-five pick like they did a year ago. Jones, who has been training here for the past six weeks, took a break between his morning strength work and his afternoon basketball sessions to discuss his situation on Friday.

He is considered one of the greatest mysteries of this group, a supremely talented player with the rarest of skill-sets and size (6-foot-11, 235 pounds) whose lack of assertiveness, toughness or consistency in college raised questions about whether he'd ever maximize his potential. And while we'll delve deeper into Jones' personal story soon as part of our ongoing draft coverage, he had a message to share that simply couldn't wait: regardless of what position he plays, he's finally starting to see how special he could be.

"I feel way more confident than I ever was at Baylor," said Jones, who will head for Chicago predraft camp next week like most of the top-level prospects. "Working out three times a day, I feel great. I see the potential I have. I'm actually using the potential I have.

"I've been using it in workouts. They've been going great, playing three-on-three or one-on-one. I do a lot that I normally wouldn't do. I'm just a lot more confident when I'm playing ball."

Why now, and not before? Because, Jones claims, the group that surrounds him here is providing the vision that both him and the Baylor boys apparently lacked. His strength and agility work is being handled by the team at P3 Peak Performance, an athletic science laboratory of sorts in Santa Barbara where players from around the league come to get stronger while learning how to use their bodies more efficiently.

His hoops training, which takes place on the UC Santa Barbara campus as part of the program headed by the Bill Duffy Agency, often involves playing against fellow prospects and former NBA players like 28-year-old Al Thornton. The specialized work is handled by Ross McMains, a sprite 23-year-old whose playing career ended at Santa Monica Community College but whose coaching career unofficially began when he started attending coaching clinics at the age of 16. McMains, who spent more than an hour walking Jones through a series of nuanced and deliberate offensive moves during my time in their gym, is also improving his arsenal through a variety of video sessions. The digital tape on McMains' laptop on this day was cued to Quinton Ross and Bruce Bowen, both renowned defenders in their NBA days who McMains wanted Jones to learn from.

"It's probably the level of training (that has helped his confidence), the level of competition that there is now," Jones said. "It's far greater than college. Just playing against older guys, against more experienced people, all the time, having the freedom to just play basketball. That's the best part."

Which indicates, of course, some level of discontent with the way things went before. The Bears were a balanced scoring team during a season in which they finished with a school-record 30 wins and reached the Elite Eight, and Jones said he was hesitant to demand the ball as a result. His scoring and rebounding numbers were almost identical the last two seasons (13.7 points per game as a freshman, 13.5 as a sophomore; 7.2 rebounds per as a freshman, 7.6 as a sophomore). Asked if he thought he was used properly in college, Jones said, "I don't think so. Not at all. Seeing the player that I've become over the past month or so, I wasn't used well at all.

"For example, the first day (in Santa Barbara) we did a 25-shot drill. For college-range threes, I made 18-of-25. And from pro-range threes, I made 15-of-25. I didn't shoot threes well in college, and I barely shot the three -- I think -- because I was thinking a lot in college."

The numbers, as Jones indicated, weren't pretty: he shot just 30 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore while averaging one attempt per game.

"I was thinking instead of just playing off of instinct," he continued to explain. "And I had a team (around him). I didn't feel pressure to be a great scorer because I had so many other people who could score around me. Just now, I realized that it doesn't matter who's on my team or who's around me, it shouldn't hinder what I can do best -- and that's score the basketball.

"I think now, if I could do it over, I wouldn't let anybody get in the way of me being able to score the ball. I wouldn't think twice about shooting it. I'm probably the most confident that I've ever been (now)."

Those same teammates that he so often deferred to saw the progress recently, too.

"I played open gym with a couple of my (former Baylor) teammates when I went to take my finals, and they were asking me why I didn't play like that the past two years," he said. "I had no explanation for it. I don't know. I guess the hard work is paying off."

Truth be told, though, even this well-constructed pre-draft program won't clear the memory banks of scouts and executives who spent the last two years wondering why Jones didn't do more. It could be argued that he has more raw talent than anyone in the draft, yet he could turn out to be a late lottery pick (I have him going tenth to New Orleans in my first mock draft). Of all the high-profile prospects being so seriously scrutinized, no one has more convincing left to do than Jones.

"(NBA executives) can either base things off what I did in college, or they can base it off what they see in the near future," Jones said. "If they want me to come in and work out for them, they can base it off what they see there. If they don't see that I've been working hard every day and that I really want this, then I can't say nothing about it."

The real small forward race: Jones certainly has some small forward capabilities, but there is no shortage of true "threes" to choose from this year too.

Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tops the list, and he's clearly among the possibilities for Charlotte with the No. 2 pick (if they hold onto it, that is). North Carolina's Harrison Barnes comes next and -- from what I'm hearing -- could go as high as No. 4 to Cleveland. From there, though, the rankings aren't quite so clear.

Case in point: Baylor's Quincy Miller (6-9, 200), who didn't make my mock but who could go as high as the mid-first round. After Slam magazine rated him the top prep prospect of the 2011 class in 2010, Miller tore his anterior cruciate ligament during his senior season at Westchester Country Day High in High Point, N.C., and saw his stock take a hit as a result. But he's heading in the right direction again, having averaged 10.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 24.4 minutes per game for the Bears while being named Big 12 Co-Freshman of the Year.

Denver is a real possibility for Miller at No. 20, though the Nuggets -- and quite a few other teams -- have their eyes on another combo forward as well: Iowa State's Royce White (who can play small and power forward but, at 6-8 and 270 pounds, will be undersized height-wise at the next level). St. Johns' Moe Harkless (No. 23 to Atlanta in Mock 1.0) is equally versatile and even more athletic, but there may not be enough teams with a need at the "three" for everyone here to find a first-round home.

Vanderbilt small forward Jeff Taylor, meanwhile, should be safe so long as defense remains a priority for the contending teams that pick near the end (rest assured, it is). The four-year college player is a phenomenal perimeter defender and a physical specimen in terms of athleticism, balance and agility (according to the P3 folks). He's a capable scorer, too, averaging 16.1 points per game last season with an improved inside-out game. It's the sort of skill-set that general managers and coaches typically love, and one that Taylor said he admires as well.

"I really like Kidd-Gilchrist," Taylor said when asked about the best perimeter defenders in this draft. "I think he really tries hard and he tries to guard and he tries to do all the right things out there. I definitely respect him."

Plumlee shines in Minnesota: While the Chicago camp is far and away the most crucial predraft event, a group workout hosted by the Timberwolves in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday was key as well.

With 24 late first-round and second-round prospects scheduled to take part and representatives from all 30 teams reportedly on hand, the one name I heard from numerous sources was that of Duke center Miles Plumlee. The 6-11, 225-pounder not only played well but wowed those on hand with his hops, registering leading vertical leaps in the "with steps" category (41 inches) and "without steps" (34 inches) that were the best of the 14 prospects on Thursday (although his hand-size -- which comes in, well, handy when it comes to big men -- was the smallest of the group at eight and 1/4 inches).

If Plumlee rises up the ranks, it will be a classic case of teams investing on a big man's potential even when his production hardly merited notice. His senior season was easily his best at Duke, as he averaged 6.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and 20.5 minutes per game. Baylor's Quincy Acy -- the 6-7, 225-pound forward who was third in scoring behind Jones on the Bears last season at 12 points per game while averaging seven rebounds -- came close to Plumlee in the "without steps" category (33.5 inch jump) while also playing well in Minnesota.

One to watch: Vanderbilt shooting guard John Jenkins is another prospect to keep an eye on, as he sees himself as the best shooter in the draft and reminds me of Golden State's Klay Thompson in that regard.

A year ago, Thompson wasn't afraid to rank himself above then-BYU guard Jimmer Fredette as the most dangerous marksman of them all. He struggled early while playing behind Warriors' go-to man Monta Ellis, but flourished when Ellis was traded to Milwaukee in mid-March en route to taking sixth place in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Jenkins has the same sort of confidence, and I could easily see him moving up the big board of a team with a need for another scorer. He's coming off a strong junior season, having led the Commodores in scoring at 19.9 points per game while shooting 54.2 percent overall and 43.9 from beyond the arc as a junior. He's a long-range specialist, to be sure, as two-thirds of his attempts came from three-point range (8.7 of 13.1 per game). Jenkins has already worked out for Denver (No. 20, No. 38 and No. 50), and said he is scheduled to return for a second Nuggets workout as well.