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Dominique Jones and the science of drafting role players

(I know this runs the risk of making this Dominique Jones weekend on a Wizards blog, but whatever).

I wasn't originally planning on heading down to Wizards pre-draft workouts, but when I saw Dominique Jones' name on the list, I had to make the trip.  (Well, that and seeing Omar Samhan, but for more on him, go here).  Why?  Mostly because I think Dominique Jones is one of the most interesting prospects in the draft.  

Here's a guy that had to do everything for a horrendous South Florida team to even have a chance at winning games.  He was double-teamed like crazy and forced to shoot so many bad shots to bail out his team when nobody else could get open.  He couldn't play off the ball because his team didn't have anyone who could deliver him shots.  He had to play defense at a high level because nobody else on his team could.  In short, he was significantly better than his teammates.  And yet, despite all those things working against him, he nearly led South Florida to an improbable NCAA Tournament berth.  It's safe to say very few prospects can say they accomplished as much as Dominique Jones did last year.

That's the good news.  But here's the problem: in terms of his NBA prospects, Jones developed some bad habits along the way.  He had to shoot a lot of bad shots to get his team back into games, and as Jonathan Givony writes, that pressure often caused him to exhibit poor shot selection in spots where it wasn't merited.  The entire South Florida offense was him, so he never learned how to properly play off the ball.  His decision-making wasn't always great because, frankly, even a bad decision by him was often better than a good decision by one of his crappy teammates.  What happens to Jones once he gets to the NBA and finds that he's now the guy that has to tailor his game to the superstar, rather than the other way around?  Wherever Jones is drafted, he won't have the offense turned over to him, so this is definitely an issue.

So it was a pleasure to hear him talk about all this stuff.  Below the jump, some more on Jones' workout with the Wizards, straight from the source.

I got to see very little of the actual workout, so I really don't know how Jones did.  The only part I did see was the "seven" drill, when the players run a bit and step into a mid-range jump shot.  They must hit seven in a row before the drill can end.  Jones didn't do very well in this drill and admitted as much.

"I shot well on standing shots and off the dribble, but coming off screens and stuff, I didn't do too well at that, because I'm not used to it.  It's something I never really did much in college," he said.

But that was just one part of the workout, so don't read too much into it.  What should be read into is what Jones himself said in his post-workout interview with the press.  I took two major things away from it.  First, Jones is supremely confident and definitely is going through this process with a big chip on his shoulder.  Second, well, like we discussed before, Jones is playing a bit from behind when it comes to certain skills he'll need to succeed in the NBA.

But first, the confidence.  Jones really does believe he belongs as one of the top 15 players selected in this draft.  He also believes, in some form, that he probably will go later than that.  When that happens, he really does believe those teams that pass on him will regret it.  

"As long as I have a good situation and the opportunity to go out on the court and show what I can be, in the long run, I'm going to be a great player," he said, in a very manner-of-fact way.  "People are going to look back 10-15 years from now and be like, 'How was that Dominique Jones still in the draft?'

That confidence also manifests itself when he's asked to compare himself to some of his peers.  Jones said, correctly, that he wasn't surrounded with very much at South Florida.  At one point, one reporter asked him about which player was the best he played against in college.  Jones name-dropped West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, Syracuse's Wesley Johnson and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds (in that order), but immediately added that "you can never really measure how good someone is because of the team they have surrounding them compared to the team I had surrounding me."

"Everytime I stepped on the court, I was trapped off ball screens. I was being doubled," Jones said.  "Every time I made a move, someone stepped up."

In a way, Jones sees that as an advantage.  He had to play a certain way in college, so now that he's in the pre-draft process, he can show people some other things he can do.  Like playing point guard.  Jones really believes that he can be a scoring point guard in the drive-and-kick style of the new NBA.

"I'm going to bring a team more than just scoring, if it's coming from the 1, getting other guys involved, getting assists, rebounding, playing good defense, I'm going to bring the team more than just being a scorer," he said.

"There's a lot of things that I can do that I wasn't able to show in college, because of the team that I was on and the talent surrounding me," he said later.  "I feel like if I can take guys like that and go beat teams in the top 10, the top 20, then if I get some other pros, I can make some good things happen."

But there's also the disadvantage we talked about before the jump: the fact that, well, Jones hasn't exactly practiced some of the skills he hopes to show off.  Surprisingly, to me, Jones did little to run away from that fact.  I asked him about how he thinks his game might adjust to the NBA, and he was very candid about the fact that he hasn't practiced a lot of the skills he'll need to learn to succeed in the NBA.

"I never really got that NBA coaching, when it comes to off the ball screens, what to look for, how to play it, how to come off down screens, because in college, when I came off down screens, I was automatically doubled," he said. "That's something some other guys have an advantage over me, because they're used to it.  They had the coaching on how to be an NBA player, and I feel like I'm raw talent."  

Raw talent.  That's an interesting description of Dominic Jones.  It's true, he has raw talent.  Lots of it.  And he seems eager to learn, for what it's worth.  He spent a lot of time praising the work of the Wizards' assistant coaches, particularly Sam Cassell, who was working with him on the rip-through move to draw the foul that Kevin Durant has popularized.  But he also said he's been "playing off talent" and reiterated that he's still trying to "get used to" this kind of coaching.  

So obviously, this throws a bit of a monkey wrench into Jones' draft prospects.  It's very unlikely that he'll be able to play the same kind of role in the NBA that he played at South Florida, and while he could pick up all the things he needs to pick up to make it work as an NBA role player, lots of teams would rather have the guy who knows that stuff already.  Jones is remarkably talented - anyone who can lead that South Florida team to that kind of season is - but where does he fit onto an NBA roster?  It's a legitimate question.

And frankly, this is a major philosophical question about the NBA Draft.  Suppose you have a later pick, like the Wizards.  Is it better to gamble and hope you strike it gold, or would you rather draft a guy you know can fit into a specific role and can fill it cheaply?  Ernie Grunfeld was a believer in the first strategy, swinging for the fences with our mid-first round picks over the years.  However, many other good teams have taken the second approach and found legitimate role players for cheap.  They've avoided having to drop MLE-level money on seventh men, because those picks have become their seventh men.  Then again, that could be a reflection on their player development system, not their draft philosophy.  

Either way, it's an interesting discussion, and Jones is the kind of guy at the forefront of it.  On pure talent, he should be a potential lottery pick.  When it comes to fit, though, it becomes a trickier sell.  It's what makes the NBA Draft so interesting.