2019-20 Player Review: Damian Jones

Ben Ladner

The Golden State Warriors offered Damian Jones enough opportunity to now wear two championship rings on his fingers, but hardly a sufficient amount of time to learn the finer points of NBA basketball. One could be excused for mistaking the 24-year-old Jones for a rookie last season. While the athletic center was among the oldest players in Atlanta’s rotation, he had little more than a half-season’s worth of experience in the NBA when he arrived in Atlanta. Injuries, inconsistency, and all-world talent limited Jones to just 584 minutes in 49 games in three seasons with the Warriors. The Hawks gave him the chance to build upon an abbreviated Golden State tenure that never quite got off the ground. They had neither the positional alternatives nor the expectations those Warriors carried, and thus provided Jones room to feel out the game in a way Golden State simply couldn’t afford to. At $2.3 million, Atlanta could afford to take that flier.

The Hawks also offered Jones a lifeline. Prior to this season, his NBA career was hanging by a thread after his sparse production in Golden State had dimmed some of the luster the Warriors saw when they spent the 30th pick of the 2016 draft on the 7-foot jumping jack. Jones logged 887 minutes for Atlanta and, frankly, played a larger role than he should have. He may eventually round into an offensive center that can hold down a rotation spot, but he wasn’t ready for that responsibility this season. That isn’t entirely Jones’ fault; the Hawks’ failure to acquire a serviceable center in the offseason placed an unfairly heavy burden on Jones, who was clearly still learning the ins and outs of the game. The big man improved over the course of the season, but his rate of growth wasn’t as steep as Bruno Fernando’s, and his starting point was far lower than Alex Len’s or Dewayne Dedmon’s.

Jones, however, does have a clear, defined NBA skill -- rolling to and finishing at the rim -- and started 27 games solely for his ability to provide a lob threat for Trae Young in the pick-and-roll. An explosive vertical athlete, he shot 74 percent at the rim this season, which made him one of the most efficient centers in the NBA -- albeit on extremely low usage. His efficacy beyond the paint, however, left much to be desired. Jones offered little on offense beyond catching and immediately finishing, and almost nothing in the way of playmaking. Those capabilities aren’t necessarily expected of big men in his mold, but some versatility might have kept Jones from often looking out of his depth.

Defensively, he still has significant steps to take to reach passability. Some of his shortcomings on that end of the floor -- late recognition, poor communication, sloppy technique -- are partly products of having so little experience prior to this season. There’s only so much that watching elite defenders from the bench can do without actually having to diagnose actions and execute coverages yourself. Jones often lagged a step behind the action, which proved particularly costly given the importance of defense at his position. The Hawks allowed over 1.2 points per possession with him on the floor, and even with unremarkable center play behind him, held opponents to seven fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. He did play most of his minutes with Trae Young, arguably the worst defender in the NBA -- but defensive success or failure falls at the feet of bigs more than any other position.

Despite his impressive vertical athleticism, Jones doesn’t get off the ground quickly and isn’t especially agile moving laterally. He takes a beat to load up before leaping, which often made him late to challenge shots at the rim, and tends to stay upright when tasked with defending in space. That mechanical movement hurt Atlanta on the defense glass, where Jones grabbed only 14.1 percent of opponents’ missed shots. He was an effective offensive rebounder because he could sneak around defenders and use his unchecked explosiveness to outjump opponents for loose balls; his lack of physicality, however, prevented him from successfully keeping his man off the offensive boards. Jones was also prone to biting on pump fakes and often got handsy with ball handlers and post-up brutes. That led to heaps of fouls, which further limited his ability to stay on the court.

The future of Jones’ NBA career remains unclear. He’ll be a restricted free agent this offseason, and with three centers (and John Collins) already under contract for next year, it appears doubtful he’ll be a Hawk in 2021. He has a nearly $7 million cap hold, which Atlanta will likely renounce, and he’s unlikely to get that much on the open market. Some team could be intrigued enough by his athleticism and play finishing to offer him another lottery-ticket deal, but Jones is running out of time to make that a worthwhile investment.