As an NBA journeyman, Popeye Jones had walked through the Rose Garden Arena in Portland dozens of times, whenever any of his six teams tangled with the Trail Blazers. But until the night of Sept. 21, 2012, he had never been there as a spectator, had never paid much attention to the concession stands—and definitely had never hidden his face to keep people from seeing his eyes well with tears. "I just stood there and watched them sell my son's jersey," he says, his voice catching with emotion, recalling the hour before Seth Jones's home-ice debut with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. "I couldn't believe how far, I mean how much work, I mean ... proud father, that's all. Proud father."
This is an article from the Feb. 18, 2013 issue
Popeye has reason to be proud. Last month Seth led all defensemen with six assists as the U.S. won the under-20 title at the world junior championships in Ufa, Russia. (Last April he captained the U.S. under-18 team to a world championship in the Czech Republic.) In his 46 games with league-leading Portland, Jones, 18, tops all WHL rookie defensemen, with 42 points, and is a gaudy +35. Last month the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau rated the 6'4", 205-pound backliner as the No. 1 North American skater for June's NHL draft in New Jersey. (It is widely assumed that Jones and 17-year-old Canadian center Nathan MacKinnon of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Halifax Mooseheads will be the top two picks.) When he is selected, Jones will make history as the first NHL player whose father played in the NBA. Add his talent and skill to his maturity and warm personality, and Jones could become the most marketable black player the NHL has seen.
On the ice Jones looks different than any other 18-year-old defenseman—for reasons that have nothing to do with the color of his skin. He skates with an economy of stride more common for players with smaller, less robust frames. At the opposing blue line, where indecision leads to turnovers, he is poised and moves without hesitation. "He has it all: size, smarts, skill and a great, great head for the game," says Phil Housley, Jones's coach at the world juniors. "He reminds me a little of [Hall of Fame defenseman] Larry Robinson when he was in Montreal. He's the total package."
Ronald (Popeye) Jones wasn't graced with his son's physical gifts. By his sophomore year at Murray State in 1989, the 6'8" center had cut his weight from 315 pounds to 250. Though his frame was newly thin, he kept his heavy legs. "I couldn't outrun anybody, outjump anybody, outlift anybody," he says. "But I carved out a career because I was always trying to learn and I was never satisfied."
At the NCAA tournament in 1990, Jones scored 37 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the unranked Racers took Michigan State to overtime before losing 75--71, the closest a No. 16 seed has come to beating a No. 1. The defeat always rankled Jones. He was drafted by the Rockets in the second round in '92. Four years later, after he set a Mavericks record with 28 rebounds in a loss to the Pacers, he blamed himself for the defeat by misjudging a carom in the closing minutes. He didn't measure his game in points—he averaged only 7.0 in his 11-year career. He measured it in bruises and floor burns.
Still, Jones had his tricks. If you spread your feet, you'll make yourself wider. If you lean on someone before the ball hits the rim, they have to go around you, so you play taller. Instead of playing video games, he often tangled with Nick Van Exel—his teammate in Denver, Dallas and Golden State—in chess. When passing on advice to Seth, Popeye's best cross-competitive analogy came not from power forwards and point guards but from bishops and knights. "Control the middle of the ice the way you control the middle of the board and think two or three moves ahead of everyone," he would say. "See what board awareness does? Learn ice awareness."
Popeye was a basketball vagabond, jumping to Italy out of college for a season before returning to the U.S. in 1993 to play for six NBA teams over the next 11 years. When he played for the Mavericks, Stars center Mike Modano gave him tickets to a Dallas playoff game. When he played for the Raptors, he'd spend his off-nights trying to decode Don Cherry's blustery banter on CBC. In Colorado during the 1999--2000 season his Nuggets shared a weight room with the Avalanche, and Jones approached Avs captain Joe Sakic about getting his three boys—Justin, 9, Seth, 5, and Caleb, 3—into hockey. The two oldest had been pestering him to play. Sakic didn't know Jones from the Jolly Green Giant, but he recognized genetic potential when he saw it. "First of all, they'll be huge," he said. "Never mind hockey. Just get [your kids] skating. Get them comfortable on their feet. The sooner, the better."
Jones put the boys in figure skating lessons. "I figured technique was the most important thing," he said. "Fundamentals."
Seth took to the blue line because, he says, "if you're a forward, it's go, go, go. It's reaction. On defense, you have the whole game in front of you." He can also, of course, play a little hoops. (In a driveway last summer, the son coaxed his dad into lobbing him an alley-oop. "I had no idea he could dunk," Popeye says.) But Seth never fell in love with the game. "My dad may not like it, but [basketball] was too slow for me," he says. "Hockey had an intensity, but also a structure, I just always loved."
Jones won his first national title at the peewee level, as one of only two 10-year-olds playing on the Littleton Hawks, a team of 11- and 12-year-olds. Coach Kent Murphy recalls how well Jones took his mantras to heart: Never argue with the referees. Don't bang your stick. Don't speak badly about your teammates. Never pull up short on your drills. When Jones was the Hawks' captain in his final year, he would make sure to introduce himself to new teammates to make sure they felt welcome. "When he was 12, you'd think he was an 18-year-old, the way he comported himself," says Murphy. "He never made anybody feel like he was our best player, which he was. But he made them feel like the team would be better because they were there."
For all the influence he had on his son's career, Popeye admits he was not the driving force behind it. His ex-wife, Amy, whom he divorced in 2011, was, he says, "an unbelievable woman who deserves more credit than she gets. She's tougher than I am. She was the hockey coach in the family. She made rules. The boys didn't break them."
Seth was only eight when he scribbled a message to Amy on four yellow Post-it notes: "Mom, I love you so much," he wrote, "and I will never leave you even when I go to the NHL." When he was 13, he set the long-term goal of making the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting a to-do list to help him work toward that destination. (He made the team when he was 16, in his first year of eligibility.) He considered taking a scholarship to play at North Dakota but opted instead for the WHL despite Amy's misgivings. Seth promised her he would further his education; he is earning college credits by taking online courses in business and sports psychology through the Winterhawks. He also explained to her that each step he took had to prepare him for what would come after, and that the more demanding 72-game schedule in the WHL was superior to the 36-game slate in the NCAA. "He always has detailed solutions for big decisions," says Amy. "I'm happy for the young man he's becoming."
Jones ruffled feathers last month before the world juniors when he insisted that the U.S. had "the best team," adding, "There's not much another team can do to take us off our game." His boast was uncharacteristic, but Jones (one of Team USA's alternate captains) and his teammates backed it up. The U.S. held its opponents to nine goals in seven games, and the team's top three defensemen—Jones, Jake McCabe and Jacob Trouba—were exceptional, leading NHL coaching great Scotty Bowman to say on Twitter, "USA World Jrs Defence Core remind me of my Montreal Canadiens days in the 70's with [Serge] Savard, [Larry] Robinson, [Guy] Lapointe. The USA Guys are big and mobile."
The team actually dropped two of its first three games in the preliminary round, to Russia and Canada, by identical 2--1 scores. Before the fourth game, against Slovakia, Jones and Trouba spoke convincingly in a players meeting about how the team had been just a few subtle adjustments from victory in that pair of defeats. The U.S. promptly went out and thumped Slovakia 9--3. "Any time we faced adversity," Housley recalls, "you could see how the other guys looked to Seth in the room. On the ice he really breaks down the opposition forecheck because he makes smart first passes out of the zone and he can also carry it out. He really compromises other teams' capacity to put pressure on our team and creates offense from our own zone."
Off the ice Jones has a chance to be a more prominent face of the game than the NHL's other black superstars. Goalie Grant Fuhr won a lot of games for the Stanley Cup--winning Oilers in the 1980s but played in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky. Winger Jarome Iginla, now in his 16th season with the Flames, has never won a Cup and has spent much of his career playing for a bad team in a small market.
There are detractors who say that while Jones isn't afraid to hit somebody, he could play with more menace. They concede that he has a booming shot but feel he could be more creative when he joins the rush. Such talk doesn't bother Jones. Even his favorite player, future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom—who retired last season after 20 years with the Red Wings—had his critics. "Nick wasn't the flashiest, he certainly wasn't the strongest," Jones says. "I learned so much from watching him, because he always read the play so well and seemed to make the right decisions."
The book on Jones has barely started. Some day it may be required reading too.
A periodic look at some of the most intriguing draft prospects in sports
A high-ranking NHL scout sizes up junior sensation Seth Jones
"Two of Seth's most intriguing qualities are his elite athleticism and his elevated level of competitiveness. Given his size, mobility and coordination, it is very difficult to put a ceiling on his potential upside. He has the rare ability to anchor a penalty kill or run a power play, and he adjusts very quickly to the level of competition, be it a junior game or under the intense scrutiny of world juniors, where he quietly outperformed more mature, seasoned—and already drafted—defenders. He still needs to work on his quickness, as well as his reads and reactions as the pace [of the game] heightens, but the physical tools and the quiet nasty edge to his play have scouts salivating. And he's a huge minutes eater as well."
Five for The Future
Pierre McGuire looks ahead to the June 30 NHL draft, which is top-heavy with young talent
The 5'11", 179-pound center for the Halifax Mooseheads is the most explosive skater in this year's class (28 goals, 41 assists). A Jeremy Roenick--type player, he loves the physical side of the game, and he has excellent skill and vision.
Another member of the Mooseheads, the 5'11" 176-pound wing has great passing vision and scoring touch (29 goals, 43 assists). He's elusive but will need to add speed when he reaches the NHL. He should turn out to be similar to Kings winger Simon Gagne.
The 6'2" 205-pounder is a skilled two-way center with Tappara in Finland. More playmaker than scorer (19 goals, 21 assists)—like the Sharks' Joe Thornton—he has great strength but needs to play with more urgency.
The Ottawa 67's 6'2", 193-pound center is a dynamic player and consistent scorer (23 goals, 39 assists) who also plays a shutdown role (think the Canucks' Ryan Kesler). His ice awareness makes him as much a lock as any player in the draft.
The 6-foot, 183-pound center has special skills down low in the offensive zone (17 assists, 24 points) for Bryn√§s IF in his native Sweden. He's physical, but he still needs to add strength and speed. He plays like the Flyers' Claude Giroux.
Get the latest NHL draft coverage, including up-to-the-minute news and trends, from Brian Cazenueve, Stu Hackel, Sarah Kwak and Alan Muir at SI.com/mag