(Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Lakers)
“I come from nothing. I come from the struggle, so I know what it takes.”
Jemerrio Jones grew up in the Orange Mound neighborhood in South Memphis.
Life wasn’t easy. And basketball wasn’t much a part of it until his teenage years.
“I didn’t even play at the park until I was like, 12 or 13,” said the 6’5’’, 23-year-old swingman who got called up from the South Bay Lakers to the big squad, and made his NBA debut on March 31. “I used to play on the street, but I never took it serious. I liked football more. I knew how to catch.”
Due to his raw athleticism, local coaches tried to get Jones to play for their teams, but he wasn’t much interested. He liked being outside with his friends all day, and none of them played basketball. If a game was played, it was more likely to be hide and seek.
One of the coaches was Sherman Jones (unrelated), who first spotted Jemerrio while in his second year of coaching at Airways Middle School in Orange Mound. Airways feeds into Melrose High School, one of the schools Jones would eventually attend.
“He just had a knack for playing basketball,” Coach Jones recalled. “I was trying to put a team together, and this little 6th grade kid comes in hustling, running all over the floor with the 8th graders, and I knew right away there was something to him.”
Eventually, the prodding helped get Jemerrio on the court, and he quickly improved, making a name for himself, even if it wasn’t always easy.
“I was really structured,” said Coach Jones. “Him being a neighborhood kid, that was kinda foreign to him. But I wanted to give him that opportunity to see some other things, and I just saw some ability.”
Jones continued to play locally at the middle school and community center from the ages of 11 to 14, and as his game improved, the AAU programs in the area started to recruit him.
“I didn’t know about AAU until then,” Jones told us. “I thought I was playing AAU, but it was just community ball at Orange Mound. People had been trying to get me to play for their teams, but I was loyal to them. What did I care? We didn’t have the best gear, shoes or nothing. So?”
As a rising athlete, Jones was getting a lot of support from the Orange Mound community, one that was used to protecting its own when there was an opportunity to rise up.
“It’s a tough neighborhood,” explained Coach Jones. “There are some caring people in Orange Mound, but at the same time, there are a lot of distractions, a lot of things going on that most kids shouldn’t be privy to actually being a part of. And Jemerrio was one of those kids, but basketball was his opportunity to not be distracted by those things.”
Life was anything but easy.
“Basketball was the getaway,” said Jones.
“Don’t get me wrong, he had his moments where he slipped back and forth, but he always had that round ball which he loved,” said Coach Jones. “Everyone is always going to be behind him, because Orange Mound has a long, rich history and tradition of being one of those communities that sticks together, although it’s an impoverished area now because of blight and several other things. But the area has the back of the children.”
You might think that a child in Memphis would be a big Penny Hardaway fan, given the former Orlando Magic stars local roots, but that’s not necessarily how it was for kids like Jemerrio, at least at first. He wasn’t watching TV much, and definitely didn’t have the NBA on.
“I didn’t start watching basketball until now,” he said. “My favorite player was D-Wade, because everyone was talking about LeBron and Kobe, but I saw the Miami Heat play one time and I liked how (D-Wade) played. But I never watched it. I watched cartoons. Sponge Bob. Robot Chicken. Futurama, stuff that would be on later at night.”
Jones also wasn’t aware that there was a strong college program right in his city, at the University of Memphis, but that all changed when a Chicago kid named Derrick Rose came to play for John Calipari in 2007-08. The Tigers barely lost a game, going 38-2 before falling in the National Championship game. Jones couldn’t help but hear about that.
“It was college first, when D-Rose and them came in 2008,” he said. “When I first seen college basketball and I was in 7th or 8th grade, I thought, ‘Dang, I want to go to college now!’ And my middle school coach started pushing me more.”
Sherman Jones began to look for teams that Jemerrio could play on where he could get some exposure, encouraging him that he couldn’t just keep playing at the community center.
Jemerrio acknowledged that there were many weekends where he just wanted to stay out on the streets with his friends, and he’d try to hide from his coach. But Coach Jones would drive around the neighborhood until he found Jemerrio, pick him up and take him to a game.
Soon, he was a member of Team Thad. Current Pacers forward Thaddeus Young is from Memphis, and an AAU team called Memphis Select evolved into Team Thunder, and eventually, when Young got increasingly involved, Team Thad.
“Then we really started doing good,” he said.
Their coach was Young’s friend from high school, who wanted to start a team, and Young helped him get everything going.
Jones went from playing just amongst his community to going against the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Ben Simmons.
While he was getting better and better, Jones suffered a setback when he tore his ACL during his junior year of high school, and he didn’t play as a senior due to poor grades, before dropping out in the spring.
HILL COLLEGE AND NEW MEXICO STATE UNIVERSITY
A legitimate setback, as Coach Jones referred to … but it didn’t stop Jemerrio. Nonetheless, he earned his GED, and enrolled at Hill College, a community college in Hillsboro, Texas.
“I’d never heard of it until I went there,” said Jones. “I thought it’d be like a D1, but it was in the middle of nowhere. I liked it though, and I succeeded there too, before I got kicked out my second year for fighting. I still did my work online, though.”
Meanwhile, Texas Tech and New Mexico State were recruiting him as a transfer student, and he felt more comfortable at New Mexico State.
“They were willing to help me more, they go to the tournament a lot and I thought I had a better chance there,” he said. “They produce my type … not they produce, but they know what type of person I am. They know where I come from, that they could deal with me. Even if I had an attitude problem, I thought they’d still run with (me).”
In other words, Jones heard NMSU had a long history of recruiting and supporting junior college transfers as well as kids from challenging backgrounds.
It worked quite well. Jones killed it at NMSU, averaging a double-double despite being a sixth man in his first year, and in his second year, he was the WAC Player of the Year, ranking 2nd in the NCAA in rebounds (13.2), and 2nd in the NCAA in defensive rating (83.2), becoming honorable mention All-American and WAC Tournament MVP.
His ability to rebound was especially impressive. NMSU coach Chris Jans told Sports Illustrated that his unique skill in tracking rebounds should be referred to as his “sonar.” In 2018, Jones became the first player since 1997 with three straight 20-plus rebounding games, via ESPN Stats & Info.
So, when did he start thinking about the NBA? It wasn’t really top of mind.
“I just love basketball, so if you see me, you’ll like the game I play too, because it ain’t all about a bucket,” said Jones. “It’s about the little things. The dirty work. The nitty gritty.
“But I’d play basketball even if I wasn’t getting paid. No matter what. It’s something that eases my mind … as soon as I touch the practice floor, I’m good.”
SOUTH BAY LAKERS
Jones went undrafted last June in the NBA, but he was drafted into the G-League (Santa Cruz), before the South Bay Lakers traded for his rights.
SBL coach Coby Karl said Jones’ growth has been very impressive.
“Off the charts,” he said. “He came in at 170 pounds and put on 30-40 pounds just being in the weight room, taking care of his body, learning how to be a professional. He came in as an undersized four man and played every position for us. We used him as a backup point guard throughout the season to utilize his playmaking skills.”
Karl said Jones is completely unique as a player.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player like JJ that comes to my memory,” he continued. “Little pieces maybe from different guys such as Trevor Ariza, Dennis Rodman, Draymond Green… maybe a bit of David Nwaba. He has a knack for the game, a really good feel for it.
“He’s an unselfish basketball player with a great feel for the game. He loves to compete, plays with joy and is loved by his teammates. He’ll get you loose balls, offensive rebounds and shows a knack for making winning plays.”
Jones said he’s really enjoyed his experience in the G-League, that there’s much more talent than people might expect, and that everybody is on their peak grind, trying to get to the NBA.
“JJ was a guy for me right away that you see, while not having the most traditional game or position, his impact is not debatable,” said NBA vet and current SBL center Spencer Hawes. “His ability to rebound, make hustle plays, end up stuffing the stat sheet when you don’t even realize … I didn’t know he scored that much, or he had 15 rebounds.”
Jones said the SBL situation has to be the best in the league considering they’re located within the UCLA Health Training Center right next to the Lakers, with access to all of the amenities, not to mention the proximity to the basketball executives.
“We’re really spoiled at the SBL,” said Jemerrio. “Everybody else is an hour or two from their (NBA) team. We’re right there in the midst of everything. But still, I never expected to play for the Lakers.”
When he first walked into the Lakers new building, he thought it was “fake” for a minute. He started texting his friends photos of the trophies, and the championship ring display outside the office of Controlling Owner/President Jeanie Buss.
Jones played in an SBL high 47 games in 2018-19, starting six, and averaged 9.4 points on 53.9 percent shooting with 9.5 rebounds – that ranked 6th in the G-League, and translates to 13.8 boards per 36 minutes – 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks in 24.7 minutes per game.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
And then the NBA called. His opportunity came when the Lakers signed him on March 31 - terms of the deal were not released, per team policy - and that was sooner than he was expecting.
“I didn’t expect to (be called up), I ain’t going to lie,” he said. “I thought, give me two years in the G-League and I’m bound to get a call up. It hit me out of the blue. I’m JJ, and these (G-League veterans) have been here for a minute, so I have some time to get it.”
NBA life has been an eye opener.
“We got our own rooms,” said Jones, who was accustomed to having a roommate in the G-League. “They’re feeding us good breakfast, they’re in there (at the team hotel) making omelets. We got the plane. I was excited about that. It’s more gear too. You’ll treat us different. You’ll spoil us, and I thank you. You don’t even have to get your own bags!”
In his first game, at New Orleans – he played for five minutes towards a steal, a bucket and a rebound – guess who was a few seats away on the bench? LeBron James, one of the greatest players in NBA history, whom to Jones seems like an “action figure.” Jones tries not “overcrowd” LeBron, just giving the occasional pound or nod if eye contact is made.
Jones played only one minute in L.A.’s loss at OKC on Tuesday. Then against Golden State on Thursday in a TNT national exclusive, he watched the Warriors explode to a 39-12 lead after the first quarter, before Luke Walton sent him to the scorer’s table to start the second quarter.
His first assignment: defend Klay Thompson, perhaps the greatest shooting two guard in NBA history. Then he moved over to Steph Curry, the 2-time MVP and greatest shooter in NBA history.
“It’s something new, because I was in the G League, but like, they’re on the bigger stage, so they’re more elite,” he said. “You know they have a name behind them, being shooters. I was ready for the challenge. I wanted to do it. It really wasn’t nothing. I was willing to do it. Luke told me to do it, so I was like, ‘I got you.’ I know I wasn’t coming out there to score.”
Jones stayed attached to Klay on one end, and helped spark a quick 8-0 start to the quarter by doing all of the little things. Grabbing boards, leading fast breaks, getting through screens. Whatever. His first bucket came over DeMarcus Cousins at GSW’s rim. Then he tipped an offensive board to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a jumper. Later in the quarter, he stripped Draymond Green before finishing a layup on the other end.
L.A. outscored the Warriors – who, in fairness, had taken their foot off the pedal just a bit – 30-21 in the period, and then 24-14 in the fourth quarter, when Jones was again on the floor for all 12 minutes. His final stat line doesn’t jump off the page: four points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two turnovers. What does jump off the page? His plus/minus of +23 in a game L.A. lost 108-90.
“He was good,” said Luke Walton when I asked about Jones. “He took full of advantage of that opportunity. We were playing the champs, he wasn’t scared. We put him on Klay. He was flying around getting us extra possessions, steals, rebounds. I think he was a plus-23 on the night. He came in ready to scrap and he was one of the bright spots for us tonight.”
“Just bring your all, because you never know when it’s your last,” Jones summarized. “Just play like it’s your last game and just keep hooping. That’s what I’m here for, to hoop. I get paid for what I do, so I’m going to give my all to it.”
Jones doubled down on his strong effort against the Warriors in a 122-117 win over the playoff-bound Clippers on Friday, leading the team in +/- for a second straight game (+8) and playing all 12 4th Q minutes. He spent much of the time following Lou Williams, one of the league’s best 4th Q scorers, and held him to five points on 1 of 5 shooting.
Yes, Jones still has a ways to go, acknowledging that he needs to really work on his jumper in the offseason, to complete a game he feels is otherwise NBA ready.
But more than anything, Jones is just happy to have found a vehicle for all of his passion and energy, one that he’s ridden it out of difficult circumstances. Basketball is his safe place.
“I know a lot of people that got caught up,” he said of his upbringing. “I’ve been through a lot, and basketball was the key to my success, so I ran with it. People chose to help me because they knew I had it in me. The people that helped me got me this far and I thank them to this day.”
“It was always about them knowing that hey, your circumstances don’t have to be your entire life,” said Coach Jones. “I always tell kids, ‘Don’t let your environment dictate who it is that you become. If you’re going out there and working and giving your best opportunity by being the best you, hey, you can come back and be somebody that these kids can look to. He’s in that situation now, and I don’t think anyone saw this coming. We always knew Jemerrio was a good ballplayer, that was never a question, but he had some distractions, and I’m just proud of him sticking with it. He’s a very likeable young man. He’s never been disrespectful, he’s always been humble and I couldn’t be more proud and more happy for him as an individual getting these opportunities.”
An NBA future isn’t guaranteed by any means, but you probably don’t want to bet against Jemerrio Jones.
“If they give me time, I’m going to show them for sure,” he concluded. “It’s the dog in me. Basketball is my way out. I gotta do it. It’s a must.”
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