We haven’t heard much from Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones in the 15 months since he was hired by Suns Owner Robert Sarver, but that doesn’t mean he’s been quiet.
Much of what Jones did as the head of basketball operations happened behind the scenes, which contributed in large part to the shock when he was given interim general manager duties following the firing of Ryan McDonough. We weren’t privy to the details Jones worked hard to iron out, quietly crafting a modern, regimented system for the players day to day.
When Jones spoke with Bright Side of the Sun at Igor Kokoskov’s introductory press conference in May, he pushed the significance of crafting a structure for players. Young NBA athletes notoriously have a massive adjustment period awaiting them when they come into the league, and Jones’ first priority when he joined the franchise was to bypass those struggles with so many young players in place by replacing uncertainty with routine, on the court and off it.
“When you have a young team, those things usually go by the wayside and those aren’t sexy things to do,” Jones said. “But over time, they add up. So day in and day out, I have no doubt that Igor will bring our guys into the gym and teach them how to play winning team basketball, which is something we haven’t had.”
My ears perked months later, when Kokoskov was talking about the team’s practice habits during the preseason. He said after the team’s open practice in September that preseason would be just an extension of training camp, with players sticking to their workout routines, practicing together and even taking vitamins like they did in northern Arizona earlier in the month.
The imprint of Jones was taking hold.
Youth is clearly something that excites Jones about this Suns team. The opportunity to mold the group into something greater than the sum of its parts, finally break in a winning culture and enforce competitive habits, is a great thing for a young general manager to try to do. Jones is just one season removed from being in the league, and he brings with him a level of clarity about what it takes to succeed not many executives know so intimately.
Jones was asked on lottery night, after the Suns’ ping-pong balls fell down in the perfect order, which intangibles he values in young NBA players. “Productivity, competitiveness, toughness and desire to win,” he answered.
“That’s important to us, because we’re at a point where winning is paramount. That’s our focus, is developing an environment where winning is the primary focus.”
Hearing Jones speak in the limited opportunities we as media have had to hear from him, the 14-year veteran seems to be more keenly focused on balancing the team’s record, if not driving past .500. Yet he also understands the theme of patience that is so vital for rebuilds.
On Bright Side Night in January, the private event hosted by our site every season, Jones talked a lot about what the best teams in the NBA did to achieve success. He pointed to the long process of constructing rosters that could compete for years on end, rather than flame out.
Jones also let us into the Suns’ mindset about competing — they were waiting out the great teams for their shot to jump in. The then-VP counted through, with shocking memory, the exact ages of some of the more ancient pieces of the league’s playoff locks. He knows it’s not time yet, but he’s focused on crafting a winning program by the time the talent is ripe.
Many of the details reported in the aftermath of Ryan McDonough’s dismissal are not surprising, knowing how deeply Jones believed in his mission and how strongly he felt about the direction the Suns should take in the near future. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that Jones had already begun constructing a new scouting staff by the time news broke the morning after McDonough learned he and most of his staff had been fired, which certainly makes it seem that Jones knew this was coming and ready.
The truth is probably that he’s been ready since last July when he was hired, the writing etched faintly on the wall if one looked closely enough. Jones was hired to improve internal communications — to avoid any more “I Dont wanna be here”’s. There have been no such problems since, and since the disastrous decision to keep Earl Watson, mostly everything has gone the Suns’ way. They hired a promising coaching mind, landed the top overall pick in the draft and created a more competitive environment by grabbing specific veteran targets in free agency.
We don’t know exactly what role Jones had in each decision, but his hand has clearly been nudging things along in Phoenix for a while now. His priority is to craft a sustainable winner with positive habits on and off the court.
Jones’ voice is now, if not the loudest, the most important in the room, the one counted on for direction. Will his be the voice to spell out the plan to build the next great Suns team?