If you’re a first-year player in the NBA, you might want to think about reading this installment of Rookie Tales</strong..
As the Cavaliers made their final regular season trip to Indiana on Friday night to face the Pacers, it was a trip down memory lane for James Jones – who was selected with the 49th overall pick by the Pacers in the famed 2003 Draft that produced the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony – but also solid, seasoned pros like Jones, Kyle Korver, Mo Williams, David West and James’ newest Cavalier teammate, Kendrick Perkins.
Jones starred at the University of Miami, where he played all four years and was recently inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame. He was a perennial All-Big East honoree before being selected by the Pacers in 2003.
As a pro, he ranks among the Association’s all-time top 30 three-point marksmen – bringing a .403 career percentage into the 2014-15 season. He won the Three-Point Shootout at 2011 All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles and, of course, has won a pair of NBA Championships with his hometown Heat.
Off the floor, as a Finance major at “The U,” Jones was a member of the Big East All-Academic Team during his first three years and was part of the prestigious Verizon Academic All-American team as a senior. At Coral Gables, James was a member of the National Honor Society and carried a 3.41 GPA.
In today’s Rookie Tales, Jones talks about his first year in Indianapolis – on a successful team loaded with veterans from across the NBA spectrum, from the steady Reggie Miller to the mercurial Ron Artest – and what he took from them for the remainder of his 12-year career …
That was a great Draft class ...
It was amazing to still see Michael Jordan ...
Not a lot of rookies enter the league and join a cast of characters like the 2003-04 Pacers...
"No, that was (guys like) Reggie (Miller), Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Ron Artest, Jamaal Tinsley, Jonathan Bender, Scot Pollard, Austin Croshere, Jeff Foster."
James Jones - Cavaliers Forward
What was it like being brought in with that group and which veteran (or veterans) took you under their wing?
"Man, it was the greatest thing ever. And I still call Reggie (Miller) my ‘big brother.’
Reggie came in basically showed me what it was to work. He showed me what it meant to work and to be committed to being a pro. He’d leave super-early – sometimes be at the arena three-and-a-half, four hours before the game. And at that stage in his career, it wasn’t about how many reps, it was just about the repetition of being there – the routine.
And so, just getting a chance to work with him here, I spent every day working and enjoying the peace and quiet of being the only ones at the arena. And it set me straight, because I’ve never felt stressed to develop as a player because I’ve always been prepared, and that’s been because of Reggie."
You were also fortunate enough to join an established, experienced group of pros. How did that benefit you?
"You talk about Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal and those guys – they were in their prime.
Ron was Defensive Player of the Year. Jermaine was an MVP candidate. We had a very good team – 61 wins, I believe. And those guys competed. They were young; they were all about the same age. It was kind of similar to our situation in Miami. We had a bunch of guys that were equally matched – physically and skill-wise, but they competed every day. And they enjoyed competing so much that they became extremely close.
And I think that’s what I take from my rookie year, which was – when they talk about team chemistry and building a team and building relationships – it’s all a byproduct of competing hard on the court every day against guys, so that you earn their respect and earn their trust. And they know that you’re buying in."
How did joining a winning, Championship-contending team benefit you as a rookie and then throughout your career?
"It was huge because, you know, you go into a place where winning is the only option and the only goal.
And you realize that the success you have – how long you play, how you’ll be rewarded – will be determined by winning. Not by numbers, not by stats. That stuff is secondary. And if you want to play a long time in this league, at some point you have to pass that stage of youth and promise and potential and actually produce. And producing means winning. Because there are plenty of guys who can score a lot of points in this league that have only lasted three or four years."
Did any veterans mess with you as a rookie?
"No. I was a mature guy. I was 22 or 23 and I was very strong-willed, strong-minded. And I was a worker.
So, for me, I think guys respected that. There was nothing they could say that would offend me or hurt my feelings. They knew they could be honest with me and I think that’s why I’ve always been blessed to have great teammates and great relationships – because at the end of the day, you have to respect the guy you’re playing with because there’s a lot at stake in the end."
Were the veterans hard on you?
"They weren’t hard on me. They held me accountable.
Ron Artest – we had some battles. He tested me physically, and he did it consistently, just out of concern because he cared for me as a young player. And I have an affinity for Ron and that’ll always be there.
It’s tough to single out just one guy besides Reggie because we played so closely together. Outside of that, every single guy there was like my big brother. I was the only rookie and they treated me with the utmost respect."
The 2003 NBA Draft class is famous for the superstars at the top of the Draft, but it also produced some of the most productive pros over the past decade.
"I talk about (that Draft class) all the time. We had quite a few guys in that Draft class and the one I really respect is Kyle Korver. He was the 51st player in that Draft and he’ll probably go down as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. But they passed on him 50 times and 29 teams got it wrong."
How has the game (and rookie classes) changed since that Draft?
"Every time I look and see one of our classmates from that draft, I think it speaks to the growth of the game and the direction of the game and the development of the game. The game has changed significantly since then.
But you see that Draft and guys from that Draft still being productive and capable of adapting to the new style of the NBA. Back then, 2-guards were 6-8. Now, 6-8 is a power forward.
It was still a defensive struggle to win games back then. The rules have changed, the skill-set has changed, the emphasis on scoring has changed. And I think you really see, that was an era of basketball where a lot of guys just played basketball year-round, the right way with coaches and development came first – prior to the AAU boom.
And so I think that’s why I think you see such a stark difference in the ability of guys in that era and that class to be able to have long, sustainable careers where their games can change and morph. They’re not so one-dimensional and incapable of adjusting."
Was it difficult to come from being a successful four-year player in college to an end-of-the bench guy as a rookie?
"Yes, it was. But I was always realistic coming in, that I was going to play among the best 450 basketball players in the world.
If you can check your ego at the door, it makes it a lot easier to work. And for me, my pride always came in my preparation and my work. And although it was tough, I knew that I was working. And so at the end of the day, if my chance came or if it didn’t come, I knew that I’d be prepared either way. And that allowed me to sleep at night and have some peace when things got tough."