Last week, I wrote of Kentucky's Skal Labissiere that "athletic 7-footers don't grow on trees," and that basic truth is equally informative of why Damian Jones -- in spite of a supposedly disappointing junior season at Vanderbilt -- is still projected to go in the mid-to-late first round of the NBA Draft.
Yes, the small ball revolution has taken hold in the NBA, but so far the victims of that trend (if there have been any) are the plodding big men who weren't terribly useful even in their heyday, but got NBA contracts because it was assumed you needed some unathletic 7-footer to
get dunked on by defend Shaquille O'Neal. However, big men who are either freak athletes or are actually good at basketball (or both) are always going to be useful to NBA teams.
it's not as though teams are saying "YHeah, Karl-Anthony Towns is a good player and all, but all things being equal, we would prefer to have the same skillset in a guy who's 6-foot-6."
And so it is with Jones. Around the middle of this season, he started dropping to the second round in a few mock drafts. The reasons weren't clear, but the thought process was that he wasn't dominating the college game the way that you would expect a first-round college junior to. From his sophomore to junior campaigns, Jones' scoring average dropped from 14.5 to 13.9 points per game. In addition, his blocks per game average dipped from 2.0 to 1.6, and he frequently couldn't stay on the floor because of foul trouble. In the 18-game SEC schedule, Jones fouled out six times.
A look suggests that there were other explanations. Aside from the frequent foul trouble, a lot of the reason Jones' scoring average dropped was simply because Vanderbilt had other players, like Wade Baldwin, to pick up the scoring load. Meanwhile, the presence of Luke Kornet -- the SEC's leading shot-blocker -- meant that Jones was playing away from the basket on defense and thus was in position to block fewer shots.
In addition, if you were projecting Jones to be a third or fourth scoring option on an NBA team -- which, if you're selecting him in the latter half of the first round, you probably are -- then it's not particularly concerning that Jones can be slowed down when defenses are keying on him, because no NBA team is going to pull out all the stops to defend Damian Jones.
Basically, the 2015-16 season proved that Damian Jones is not Hakeem Olajuwon; but didn't we already know that?
So the combine simply served as a reminder to NBA teams of why they thought highly of Jones before his junior season: He's 6'11.5" in shoes with elite wingspan and leaping ability, and at the very least he has enough skill to be a capable NBA backup with some upside to be more than that. The combine also suggested that in spite of being a junior, Jones may actually have more upside than some younger big men in the draft like UNLV's Stephen Zimmerman, whom some earlier mocks had going ahead of Jones due to perceived upside, and while he doesn't offer the upside of someone like Thon Maker, his floor is considerably higher.
Another, underrated factor: Jones is relatively young for a college junior; he doesn't turn 21 until the end of this month. To put that in perspective, he's actually only nine months older than Labissiere in spite of being two years "ahead" of him in terms of eligibility. More than a lot of people realize, NBA teams pay attention to a prospect's actual age as opposed to his year in school.
Jones did undergo surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle earlier this month, which should hold him out of the NBA's summer league, but reports indicate that he will be ready by the time the regular season starts. Even with that, though, it would be a pretty big surprise if Jones is not selected in the first round.