There is a price to pay for being a rookie in NBA training camp.
DeQuan Jones, the former University of Miami forward, learned that as soon as he joined the Orlando Magic as an undrafted newcomer a few months ago. He has had to carry luggage for the veterans, make CVS runs to buy Old Spice body wash for the team and stop at Target to pick up a stepladder for captain Jameer Nelson, who at 6 feet needs a bit of help to reach the top shelf of his locker.
Jones is so accustomed to the rookie ribbing that he thought it was another joke when coach Jacque Vaughn on Sunday called his name to join the starters in the team shootaround before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Coach Vaughn always starts practice at the baseline, and on Sunday he said, ‘I want the first five out here, and started listing off the names … Jameer, D.J.’ I was thinking, ‘D.J.? That’s me. Was that a typo?’ Coach looked right at me when he said it, but I was hesitant to walk over because I’ve experienced all the rookie pranks and I thought maybe this was another trick. So, I just stood there until I realized it was for real.’’
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Vaughn opted to rest J.J. Redick that night and wanted to see Jones in the starting lineup to evaluate how he would respond, and how he would do guarding the Cavs’ better players. Jones didn’t disappoint. He finished with seven points and nine rebounds.
He did well enough to earn a second start on the road against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night.
Before the game, Nelson, who has been particularly helpful to Jones, approached the rookie and said: “This is your chance. Take advantage of the opportunity.’’
Jones took the advice. He scored a game-high 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He also did a standout job defending the Pistons’ wings and made highlights nationwide with an acrobatic dunk over Detroit’s top pick, 7-foot center Andre Drummond. During camp, Jones has impressed coaches, teammates, executives and fans with his explosiveness, athleticism and versatility. He has looked equally comfortable as a forward and a shooting guard.
The former Cane also has wowed fans with spectacular dunks that are circulating on YouTube and Twitter.
As a result, Magic coaches and executives find themselves in a DeQuan-dary. They have 20 players on the roster, and only 15 make the final cut the first week of November. Jones is likely battling Justin Harper, Ish Smith, Josh McRoberts, Armon Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Christian Eyenga for one or two spots.
“I came into camp with no expectations,’’ Jones said by phone. “I was just excited for the opportunity to finally live my dream and be part of an NBA organization. I sat around the TV for three hours during the NBA Draft, enduring the reality that I was not being drafted. I was down, but the next day, after a good night’s sleep, I told myself, ‘Stay focused. The ball’s in your court. Don’t give up.’ ’’
The Magic called the following day, and Jones has exceeded expectations.
Not bad for a guy who averaged just 5.9 points per game his senior season as a Hurricane. Jones’ last year at UM was hardly what he had anticipated when he signed with the program four years earlier as a much-hyped Atlanta high school and AAU star.
He was suspended by UM for the first 11 games of his senior season because his name was implicated in the Nevin Shapiro booster scandal, an allegation he and his family vehemently denied. The school, unable to produce any evidence against Jones, reinstated him Dec. 21, 2011, after he retained an attorney to challenge the suspension.
Through it all, Jones kept a positive attitude and took advantage of the time on the bench to become a better student of the game. He paid close attention to advice from then-new coach Jim Larranaga and assistants Eric Konkol, Chris Caputo and Michael Huger. The lessons have served him well in Magic camp. Larranaga and his staff continue to text Jones several times a week with tips and encouragement.
“My introductory meeting with Coach L when he was hired, he told me the key to success was to utilize my strengths and hide my weaknesses,’’ Jones said. “He broke my game down for me in a way nobody ever had, and taught me how to utilize my strengths in every situation, how to best cover a great shooter, how to guard a penetrator. He helped me understand how I can best make an impact with my energy and athleticism. Almost every day I reach back to a lot of what he and the other UM coaches taught me, and it still applies.’’
One of the few gaffes Jones has made in Magic camp came just before his first start. During pregame introductions, he jogged over and shook the hands of the referees, a college custom. The veterans immediately mocked him.
“Jameer was cracking up, told me that was a rookie move,’’ Jones said, laughing. “Those are moments you take with you for a long time. I’m just soaking it all in, playing my game and hoping for the best.’’