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Home Features MVP candidate Jonquel Jones talks growth, experience and life lessons

MVP candidate Jonquel Jones talks growth, experience and life lessons

Jonquel Jones lays the ball up and in. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones lays the ball up and in. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones lays the ball up and in. Chris Poss photo.

Not many players can hit two threes, a fade-away 13-footer over All-Star Elena Della Donne, and an acrobatic up-and-under leaving her defender flat-footed, all in a single quarter.

But the Connecticut Sun are beginning to expect this kind of versatility from Jonquel Jones. In just her fourth year, Jones has already established herself as an MVP candidate, and a player who could lead the Sun to the WNBA finals.

Jones emerged, almost out of nowhere, as an impact player in 2017, earning an All-Star nod and showing remarkable guard skills for a player who stands 6-6. What she did not show that year, or in a slightly down 2018, was much of a game in the paint.

That has changed this season.

Entering the year in the best shape of her career, and with another winter of international experience at the highest level, Jones has shown knee-buckling post moves on offense, and much-improved interior defense. Perhaps most importantly, she has become the “rim-protector” that Sun coach Curt Miller has been hoping to find for a long time.

Jones has blocked 21 shots in eight games, leading the WNBA in that category, and is on track to break 100 for the year. Only Brittney Griner and Margo Dydek have blocked 100 or more shots in a season.

The Bahamas native leads the league in rebounds (12.1) and blocks per game (2.6). She is fourth in scoring (17.8 ppg) and she shoots 50 percent from the field.

Not only does she lead her team in points, blocks and steals, but also in free throw percentage (86.5, up from 67.1 in 2018) and field goal percentage.

Her all-around game puts her in a rare group of tall players who can do it all: Washington’s Della Donne, Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, LA’s Nneka Ogwumike and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart.

Jones answered questions after her team’s win over the Mystics this week.

Coming out of George Washington, you were a tall kid, who people thought could be good. But you weren’t on everybody’s national radar. And your first year in the league was just a first year. And then in 2017, you exploded onto the scene. What happened in that first summer?

First summer? Well, I went to Korea, I played for a really good coach. When I got there they were going on their fourth championship in a row. It was really tough. It was probably the hardest place I’ve ever played in terms of how our practices were, in terms of intensity. And that’s saying something coming out of college, because preseason in college is really intense, like summertime. I made a big jump, because my body, we just ran so much, that I was able to get into a different gear, and it showed me that I had a different gear that I could get to.There were a lot of times when I was in Korea that I wanted to go home. I would call my mother crying, like “I can’t do this no more, like I’m so tired.” And she was  like “Suck it up, suck it up! It’s going to make you better.” You know? And it did. So I credit that to the team at Woori Bank in Korea and the coaches there.

And did that just build confidence throughout the year when you started out so strong? What happened in that second year.

That second year, I think the big game for me was when we played in Chicago, and I just remember that a lot of things that I wanted to do just started to fall into place, you know? I think that was the point when I thought, “OK. I can really play in this league and do a lot of things that I really want to do. I belong, and I think it takes a while before you really feel like that as a younger player. And once you have that moment, it just gives you another level of confidence, and allows you to really just shine in your role. And that’s all I wanted to do coming into that season. I knew Chiney (Ogwumike) was out, and I just wanted to shine in my role, and just be the best that I could be for the team.

And then this year, what I’m seeing is a real post player. I mean your last bucket tonight was very different from anything you had ever done last year. And at the same time you’re suddenly a shot blocker, what (coach) Curt’s (Miller) been asking for. What was the breakthrough that made you so much better as a defender, so much better as a shot-blocker, this year?

Well, I guarded Brittney Griner all winter time! We were going at each other all the time in Russia. She was my teammate, so just guarding her. There was a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do: like block. I just had to get my hand up and, you know, just kind of hope she missed it. So when I’m seeing the other players, I’m like “Man, if I can get a close contest on Brittney, there’s no reason why I can’t block these shots. I think I just grew as a player in Russia as well. Emma Meesseman was on our team, BG like I said, Courtney Vandersloot, Kayla McBride. You know, the list goes on. There’s a lot of great European and Russian players as well. So just constant knowledge.

James Wade, the head coach in Chicago (who coaches in Russia during the winter), just constant knowledge and people constantly in your ear telling you ways to get better. And then of course it’s being competitive, because it’s basically All-Stars out there and you want to go out there and show that you belong and play hard. And because I had a Bosnian passport, and I had an issue with that, so I wasn’t able to play from the beginning of the season over there. So I was using every practice as like a game. So that just allowed me to really focus in and be locked in that way.

Jonquel Jones shoots over the Indiana Fever defense. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones shoots over the Indiana Fever defense. Chris Poss photo.

There’s shot blocking and then there’s general defense, and both seem to be a lot better this year. You have a lot more steals than every before – you may match your steal record in the first ten games – is that just better footwork, or is that the same deal, just playing against the best?

Partly playing against those people all winter. And then, now, I feel like I really understand the terminology, and I understand what teams are going to. This is my fourth year now, and there’s a lot of similarities in the league: there’s a lot of things that we do, and you can see, “Oh, they’re about to do that.” You kind of position yourself a little bit better. I think I better at understanding film. Because I think I was always good at getting on the court and being able to see things and feel it out a little bit. But now I can watch film and say, “OK, that’s what they’re trying to do, based on the stuff that we have.” These are the things that other teams do in this league. So because of that it just allows me to be in the right position, and it allows me to just really feel the game better.

So how did you end up with a Bosnian passport? Do you have any historical Bosnian connections?

No! Hey, you just gotta follow the money! Follow the money! [laughing].

That’s the deal with leaving the Bahamian team, too? More freedom to play in Europe?

Yeah. Financially, and playing in Europe. You have a very short time as a professional, and I want to be able to capitalize, as much as I love my country. I’m always going to be a Bahamian. I didn’t give up my passport. Financially, I just needed to put myself in a different tax bracket and do some things for my family and myself.

What do you think – and you may have answered this already – has been the primary thing you’ve learned since you entered the league?

Ooo. That’s a tough one. Biggest thing? That it’s a lot of great players, and the small things separate the wins from the losses. There’s a lot of close games in this league, so you’ve got to be able to do the small things.

And that’s sort of a theme for this team this year, right?

Yep.

What’s your primary role in this locker room?

Me? I think I’m one of the leaders on the team. I think Jazz [Jasmine Thomas] and AT [Alyssa Thomas] are like our primary people, but I think I’m right there after them. Just making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. I think also one of my big roles is being sure the rookies just understand what’s expected of them and make sure that I talk to them and help them understand the terminology. Because I feel like maybe somebody could have did a better job of helping me to understand and just kind of lead me along. And so because of that I don’t want them to ever feel the way I felt as a rookie. It’s like feeling so deer-in-the-headlights, you know? I just want to help them along.

Who are you closest to on the team?

Whoa. That’s tough. I’m so close to so many people. That’s tough.

If you could tell a younger you something, what would you tell that person? It doesn’t have to be basketball, it could be anything?

Trust the process. It’s not always going to be what you think it should be. But just allow yourself to develop and grow. I think I’ve done a good job of that, but I think I could have been better. Man, that’s tough.  . . . And everybody that you think is for you, isn’t for you. That’s a big one.

You want to give me an example of that?

Naw!

Late in tonight’s game, that back-to-the-basket stuff. Is that something you’ve been working on, and how?

I feel that I can always score from the three-point line. And I think one of the things that will take my game to the next level is for me to score inside. Coach Awvee (Storey, assistant) has really been giving me help with that. We try to work on that almost every day after practice, and whenever we have time. Just feeling comfortable and just trusting some of the moves that I’m making. And it helps to have that reputation [shooting three’s] that you have that extra confidence in making that [inside] shot.

Are you at that point where sometime during a possession you can say “Give me the…..ball?”

Yeah. Most definitely. It’s interesting that you said that, because Amber (Cox), our GM gave me a book, and one of the chapters, it was a book by (soccer star) Abby Wambach, and chapter six was about that, how she played against one of these older players from the U.S. Olympic Team, and that’s one of the main things she said she learned in that chapter. And that’s something I’ve been getting better at. I probably won’t say it like that! I’ll say maybe “run this.”

Jonquel Jones and her teammates huddle at a pause in play. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones and her teammates huddle at a pause in play. Chris Poss photo.

Tell me about your interests outside of the game. What do you do in your free time?

I’m a gamer. I’m a huge gamer, just playing video games. Talk to family, because I’m not able to see them so much. That’s for sure. I like to spend time with my teammates, go to movies, have good food, stuff like that.

If you had an entirely free day and no monetary limitations? Totally free day, what would you do?

Financial isn’t a big thing. I think, more doing stuff that won’t void my contract. Like I’d go skydiving or something.  

Tell me something about you that most fans don’t know.

I’m a pretty decent singer. Pretty decent.

Are you going to do one of those for the arena video?

Naw. We gotta keep it in this room. Keep it private sometime, you know?