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The Tao of James Jones

Phoenix General Manager James Jones has proven something of an enigma to the national media.

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2019-20 Phoenix Suns Media Day Photo by Barry Gossage NBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix General Manager James Jones has proven something of an enigma to the national media. The Suns front office has become one of the least “leaky” in the league, resulting in a series of draft picks and signings that no one saw coming. Pundits have panned Jones for the surprise drafts of both Cam Johnson and Jalen Smith about 5 to 15 picks ahead of where they were expected to go. However, Jones’ moves begin to make more sense when you look at them from the perspective of his life before, during, and after the NBA.

If you had to pick one word to describe his approach to everything, it would be “serious.”

He was raised by a mother and step-father who were both corrections officers in Florida. He has often told the story of how, when he got a “C” in Spanish in junior high, his mother gave him an ultimatum: bring the grade up to an A, or no more basketball. Ever. He remained a near-straight A student afterwards. His mother also emphasized that he should always look for ways to make the teacher’s life easier. In college, he was an academic all-American and graduated with a degree in finance.

Even as a young player he was thinking three steps ahead of his peers. He figured out in High School that the most important skill he could master was shooting. “With big guys, as you got older and as you progressed up to college that big guys became small guys. So I started shooting.” Even then, he was looking for what would let him stick in the NBA: “I thought that naturally (shooting) would be the best direction to take my career, if I wanted to have a long-lasting career.”

His overall philosophy on making it in the NBA was, “To make it at this level, you have to be great at something, but good at a lot of things.” Jones was a great shooter, cagey willing defender, consummate teammate, and constant student of the game: he never stopped working on it and adapting to how his body aged. When asked if he still worked on shooting stroke 10 years into his NBA career, Jones exclaimed, “You always tweak mechanics! You have to.”

During his 14 seasons in the NBA he never played on a losing team, only missed the playoffs once, and made the finals seven straight times. He also won the 2011 3-point contest. However, Jones was never better than a 7th or 8th man on a team. As a 2nd round pick with so-so athleticism he managed to carve out an NBA career that lasted longer than 98% of people drafted ahead of him. This longevity had a lot to do with his shooting and emphasis on winning above any personal considerations: “That’s what championship basketball is about – it’s about getting the best shot for whoever’s in the best position to help the team.”

When you consider Jones’ personnel moves through these lenses, they start to make a lot more sense. Jones picks players who value the things he values. They think about, and play the game the way he did. Thus, Jones values shooting and character above anything else.

Character can mean a lot of things, but there’s specific things Jones looks for because they were traits that he believes made him successful: coachability, willingness to play inside a system, focus on winning, a desire and willingness to continually improve their game, love of the game, dedication to their craft, hating to lose, and the seriousness to follow through on doing the things necessary to avoid losing the next time. Indeed, to Jones, mentality is even more important than shooting, because he believes that being a good shooter is more mental than physical.

When you look at the players Jones has brought in since 2019, you can see the pattern emerging: Cameron Johnson, Jevon Carter, Jalen Smith, Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, and Dario Saric are all at least serviceable from deep, if not great. Most are willing, if undersized, defenders.

Of them all, though, we have perhaps the best personality profile of Smith, who is the perfect example of a “Jones guy.”

Jalen Smith grew up with a father who was a careerist in the Navy and raised by his mom. From everything we’ve seen of Smith, he takes life pretty seriously as well. His coaches described him as staying awake long into the night on team busses after games to do his homework, when the rest of the team was either sleeping or goofing around.

He takes improving his game seriously and is willing to admit where there are holes in his game. During the COVID break he worked on his lower body strength, flexibility, hip movement, and shooting. The first three were all things the scouting reports identified as his weaknesses. During his pre-draft workouts for the Suns, while most players followed scripts, Smith did what coaches asked, even if they were areas where he was weak. This indicates both a desire to improve, and coachability.

It also demonstrates a certain amount of humility that Jones values: guys who value winning and self-improvement over personal glory. Jones called this out explicitly after the draft: “He’s extremely disciplined, regimented… We want guys that are hoopers, guys that are self-starters, that play with passion, that love this game and are dedicated with their free time to improving.” Smith takes losing hard, and his response to adversity was to improve himself, and focus on making the team better as a whole.

Jones knows what winning NBA cultures look like, and he’s trying to rebuild the Suns based on what he saw during his playing days. When you look at Suns acquisitions from his perspective and life experiences, they make a lot more sense.

His approach is also less risky than the national media thinks: it has the benefit of reducing the chances of the Suns being saddled with yet another talented but frustratingly unprofessional athlete like Josh Jackson or Marquis Chriss. You can only effectively work on wonky shot mechanics, sub-par defensive footwork, and missed rotations if the player is willing to learn. The floor for Smith is likely higher than it was for any of the Suns’ recent whiffs in the draft, and the ceiling as well given his coachability.

All of this doesn’t make Jones perfect, however. There are some glaring ways his personality-centered approach to talent acquisition can go horribly wrong. It also exposes some glaring blind spots.

Jones doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on size or playmaking. The result is the club having at least 3 or 4 undersized shooting guards and a 6’6” starting power forward. The Suns don’t have a true back-up point guard, other than Cameron Payne, who has yet to be tested in a normal year, and was bounced out of the league for a time. The Suns passed over playmaking point Tyrese Haliburton in the draft this year, and it could come back to haunt them if either Chris Paul or Devon Booker miss much time during the season.

Nor does Jones seem to be an advanced metrics person. Despite Crowder’s reputation for defense, history on winning clubs, and Jones’ praise of both, the numbers don’t bear giving him a 3 year $27 million dollar contract. Crowder’s defensive real plus minus and defensive rating over the past three seasons has been below average to bad. Nor is his career three-point percentage great, and he has a limited number of spots that he likes to shoot from. His overall offensive efficiency is also well below average. Just like Crowder, the Suns over-paid for Luc Longley in the 1990’s based on his supposed defense and championship credentials, and it was a disaster.

It could also collapse as well if the Suns start losing again. A locker room full of people who hate losing, but are getting killed most nights, will melt down quickly. If Payne is forced to see significant minutes due to injury, there’s the potential for 25 minutes a night of some terrible basketball (anyone remember Marcus Banks?) and a team in chaos by May.

Still, like any grand experiment, the results will be interesting, and might even represent a new paradigm in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni was considered an aberration when he introduced “Seven Seconds or Less” to the NBA, and today everyone plays FASTER than he advocated for, while regarding him as a visionary for his time. If Jones is successful here with his unorthodox approach to roster building, it could change how the NBA thinks about the draft and free agency.

*We at Bright Side love to share guest spots on occasion, and I am quite proud to share this one with you today! Good job on this, Brynn! You can find Brynn on twitter here

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