Things will be awkward for the New York Liberty’s excess rookies once friends from overseas return. But Jazmine Jones is making herself an essential piece of the metropolitan puzzle.
The 2020 WNBA season is one of perpetual motion. An attempt to conduct an abbreviated campaign in an enclosed bubble setting has required efficiency and speed, necessitating quick turnaround times that live little, if any, room for adjustments in practice.
Such a setup could be downright agony, at least in terms of the standings, for a team like the New York Liberty. Packed to the brim with rookie representation, the 48-hour transition periods might give them an advantage of more seasoned competition. But the inevitable rookie mistakes that can throw chemistry and cohesion out of whack are all the more difficult to correct without extended assistance. Games, in fact, may wind up being the best form of practice, especially with the Liberty sitting at 1-8 and a surprise playoff berth slowly fading from view.
Fortunately for the Liberty, Jazmine Jones never stops moving.
The Louisville alumna helped the Liberty sandwich the proceedings of the first round of April’s WNBA Draft. Sabrina Ionescu was the top overall pick while Jones’ name at No. 12 closed out the opening frame’s proceedings. New York gained a shade of maroon upon her entry. The Liberty immediately followed up the selection of Jones by opening the second round with the selection of Kylee Shook. Fellow Cardinal and 2019’s second overall pick Asia Durr was also in the mix, but wound up opting out of the bubble after a bout with COVID-19.
Even without fans, Jones is making herself a strong hype woman. The instantaneous nature of the bubble has done little to stop Jones’ lively nature. A Tallahassee native, Jones has routinely expressed her love of dancing and gratitude toward the disc jockeys stationed at the Bradenton courts.
“Music does help. The music from the pregame, announcing the starting lineups, I get into it,” Jones said prior to her second game on July 29. “I just want to bring in the energy, bring that energy on both ends of the court, especially defensively, knowing that I can guard multiple positions.”
So far, Jones is accomplishing her goals both artistically and athletically. She followed up her an infantile career-best 24-point showing on Tuesday with 11 two nights later against Indiana. Her 1.3 steals per game is second among rookies and her name appears in the top ten of the rookie rankings is almost all major categories. Speaking analytically, Jones’ defensive rating leads the entire bunch of first-years.
Jones perhaps moves more than some players do during the game through her love of music. She’s also often in the middle of the team’s pregame huddles, her enthusiasm often proving infectious.
“Jazmine works extremely hard. She really wants this,” veteran forward Amanda Zahui B said of Jones. “She really wants to be great. She goes hard at practice and she’s very vocal. She’s a great leader.”
“The main thing about Jaz is her energy,” head coach Walt Hopkins added. “When she brings her energy, no matter what, she brings us a lot. It’s defensive, it’s toughness, swagger. Jaz has been huge for us.”
Jones had missed the Liberty’s season opener against Seattle with an ankle injury but immediately made an impact with a 20-point performance in her second showing against Atlanta on July 31. Alas, that output was overshadowed by Ionescu’s ankle injury, one that’s keeping her out indefinitely. It was Jones’ antics that kept the Liberty in that game, an eventual 84-78 loss that fit in perfectly with the 2020 New York theme of putting up a respectable fight in defeat.
Since Ionescu went down, Jones has taken over some of her duties at point guard, often seen in a quarterback or floor general role at the top of the key. Her adjustment to that role, one she claims to not have seen since high school at Florida A&M Developmental, affords the Liberty’s veteran guards Layshia Clarendon and Kia Nurse the occasional rest and allows her to make a name for herself in a crowded WNBA scene.
“Just knowing that the coaching staff trusts me to be in that position, I’m really thankful for that,” Jones said. “(I’ve been) learning the game even more, learning from Layshia, learning from (assistant coach Dustin Gray), learning from (head coach Walt Hopkins), just learning how to pick apart defenses and knowing how to read the pick and rolls and things of those nature.”
“Her stepping up and playing the PG, which is not really her position, she’s doing an incredible job of observing everything that Layshia’s doing, following her way,” Zahui B observed. “She also allows herself to make mistakes at first but then correct them. She’s a quick learner and she’s doing great.”
It didn’t take long for Jones to shatter her infantile career-high in scoring. August 11’s loss to Los Angeles saw her tally the aforementioned 24 points and swipe away five steals. It was, alas, of little consolation to Jones, who merely saw herself on the wrong end of a 93-78 loss that was only so close because of her efforts.
“I had five turnovers myself. For me, personally, that’s unacceptable,” Jones said. “I’m really hard on myself about turning the ball over and I only had one assist too. Being a backup point guard, I can’t come in and turn the ball over. Those five turnovers are unacceptable.”
“I just want to win…I would’ve taken five points and us winning rather than 24 and us losing.”
As Liberty brass has continually stressed, success in the bubble was never going to be defined by the team’s record. With Jones, Shook, Ionescu, and four more rookies in tow, 2020, whether it was staged in Brooklyn or Bradenton, was all about growth, a chance to prepare for the future, a way of saying “ahem” to keep an eye on New York while the Chicago’s and Seattle’s worked on their own title windows.
But while the Liberty are happy to celebrate and cherish any progress they can make, an awkward reality awaits in 2021.
In addition to the return of Durr, the Liberty also anticipate welcoming back several international friends who opened up 2020 roster space by opting to stay overseas. Rebecca Allen, Marine Johannes, and Han Xu are all slated to come back next season when the world (hopefully) has a better grip on the ongoing health crisis. That doesn’t account for the potential of veteran draft-day addition Stephanie Talbot or the lottery pick likely on its way next spring.
That’s going to create some tough situations, and at least one of the rookies who’s rising to the challenge this summer is probably going to be dealt away or outright released. Hopkins, after all, has routinely spoken about his high hopes for 2019 alumni Durr, Allen, Johannes, and Han.
It puts Jones in a bit of an awkward position. She has the title of first-round pick on her basketball resume but being the final pick of the first round doesn’t guarantee longevity. Ezi Magbegor is currently carving a name for herself in Seattle, but the prior two 12th picks of the opening round (Marie Gulich and Alexis Jones) are struggling to earn minutes. Adut Bulgak from 2016 (chosen by the Liberty, no less) is already out of the association. Obviously, Ionescu has nothing to worry about, but it puts the remaining rookies in potentially wary positions.
But what the lively Jones is doing is extraordinary…in a team still rife with uncertainty, this “spark”, as Hopkins called her after the Los Angeles game, is making herself essential.
In essence, Jones is fulfilling the primary directive of the 2020 New York Liberty: creating effective reassurance in a rebuild now while preparing for a potentially lucrative future.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags