The player nicknamed “Airplane Mode” is beginning to spread his wings with the Heat.
The Heat on Sunday concluded a 4-2 road trip with a victory over New Orleans, and Derrick Jones Jr., whose high-elevation dunks earned him his sobriquet — was a big reason for the team’s road success.
Jones, whose playing time is increasing as the Heat continues to gain confidence in him, came off the bench to average 25 minutes, 9.4 points and 9.4 rebounds over the final five games of the trip.
“It’s really starting with all these effort, intangible plays,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra of Jones’ emergence as a key weapon. “They don’t run a play for him, but he puts his fingerprints on the competition with those efforts.”
That’s high praise for a 21-year-old who went undrafted out of UNLV in 2016. A year ago, Jones was trying to escape the clutches of the G League and, in particular, the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Skyforce. The Heat acquired Jones after the Suns waived him in the middle of last season.
“Since my rookie year, I’ve been back and forth between the G League and my NBA affiliate team,” Jones said after Sunday’s win in New Orleans. “It’s been a really long journey for me and I appreciate every moment of it. I go out there everyday and I don’t take it for granted.”
And it was his G League development that kept Jones on basketball’s front-burner. He said there are NBA-caliber players in the G League, all striving to get a look.
“That G League, it’s not just anybody,” Jones said. “They don’t get the credit they deserve. You go down there and you need to play your heart out or you’re going to get chewed up by anybody at any given moment. They go out there and play their hearts out.”
Jones is doing the same with the Heat and his hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He works at it every day,” Spoelstra said. “It’s that consistent work behind the scenes where you don’t get that instant gratification. It’s really starting with all these effort, intangible plays.”
Jones didn’t play the three games before the Heat’s trip due to an ankle injury and coaching decision, and he saw just six minutes of action in the Heat’s first game to kick off the trip in Phoenix.
But Spoelstra used him for 24 minutes in the Heat’s win over the Clippers, Jones responded with 11 rebounds and seven points, and he remained in the rotation off the bench every game after that.
Spoelstra was especially pleased with Jones’ defense.
“It’s the definition of earning the coaches’ and your teammates’ trust,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what he’s doing right now. He’s making the most of his minutes, and he’s earning more.”
Jones is taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t think I’ve proved anything yet,” he said. “I might say I’ve showed glimpses. But I know I still have a lot more in the tank that I can give. I’m 21 years old and I’m going to keep giving it until I can’t give anymore.”