Miami Heat

Derrick Jones Jr. is the Heat’s latest reclamation project

With 21-year-old Derrick Jones Jr., it looks like the Miami Heat may have nudged another halfway-there youngster over the hump.

The Miami Heat are a team that makes opposing fan bases gulp when they see them trying to finish off a development project their team failed. We’ve seen it many times under Erik Spoelstra, especially since LeBron James left the team in 2015.

Making his return to the Miami lineup Friday night at home against the Pacers, the team’s latest reclamation, Jones, saw an outsized role as the Heat once again dealt with a battered roster. Not only did Goran Dragic hit the bench with lingering right knee pain, sitting alongside guys with long-term injuries like Dion Waiters and James Johnson, but Dwyane Wade missed the contest to be with his wife following the birth of their child. That left Tyler Johnson as Miami’s primary playmaker and gave Jones a path to heavier minutes.

As the game progressed, both teams suffered additional losses. Thaddeus Young was ejected following an elbow to the face of Kelly Olynyk, who left the game as well later on when he was kneed in the abdomen by Indiana guard Tyreke Evans (he returned to close the game). Suddenly, Jones was Miami’s backup power forward, the role he seems most suited to play long-term for the franchise.

In Jones’ 26 minutes, he scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, flashing the versatility and bounciness that attracted the Heat to him in the first place. Every Heat player needs to be comfortable filling multiple roles on each end of the floor. Coach Erik Spoelstra requires his big men to move the ball just as often as his guards, which allows a unique inversion of the floor to free the guards as finishers inside. Defensively, Miami’s talent gives it the freedom to switch aggressively, especially in bench units without Olynyk or Hassan Whiteside on the floor.

That flexible switching is where the 6-foot-7 Jones can already contribute. The biggest change from his time in Phoenix to this year with Miami is playing the four rather than overextending his offensive game as a 3-and-D wing.

Friday night, the Pacers attacked Jones repeatedly in the pick-and-roll when he switched onto the ball-handler, showing he is not all the way ready right now and could be supplanted in the rotation by Johnson when he returns:

Yet at other points this year (and throughout his career), he has shown the quickness and defensive instincts that intrigued the Heat in the first place:

In September 2017, Jones told Arizona Sports prior to the start of his second Suns season, “Whoever the best player is that’s who I want to guard. … I want to guard the best player and I want to be that impact that I want to stop the best player on the court and that’s something that I’m gonna take pride in this year.”

He never really got the chance, spending most of the season in northern Arizona playing with Phoenix’s G-League squad before being cut. He was eventually waived as a result of the Suns’ own miscues with the roster. Having traded Eric Bledsoe a month into the 2017-18 season with no good option to replace him, Phoenix felt pressure to add journeyman scorer Mike James, and didn’t have a better plan than to cut Jones to make room.

Miami scooped him up immediately on a two-way contract, then inked him to a non-guaranteed, two-year deal this summer. That minimum agreement gives the Heat the flexibility to move on if Jones’ injury concerns (he’s already struggled through foot, shoulder and knee problems this year) continue or if they finally hit the jackpot chasing star players. But more likely, it means they will have an impact two-way player on a cheap contract the next two seasons.

With Dwyane Wade retiring and Wayne Ellington likely on his way out next summer, Miami will refigure its rotation. Three others have player options for 2019-20, and Miami has its own pick again next June. Jones could be a major part of the Heat’s future if his rapid progress continues — likely, considering he won’t be 22 until February.

This year, Jones will need to keep working on his body and his offensive game. Without Dragic or Wade against the Pacers, Spoelstra relied on Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson (perhaps the best current example of Miami’s player-development magic) to handle the ball, and Jones managed secondary duties. It went poorly, as you’d guess. He’s not there yet, and he will need to get better off the ball, too.

Jones has only attempted 39 total 3s in his pro career, but he shot 36 percent on 73 attempts in the G League last year. Teams will need to respect him away from the action because of his prolific finishing ability, especially on tip dunks, already a Jones specialty. Jones is in the 96th percentile this year, according to Cleaning the Glass, for forwards crashing the offensive glass, grabbing 7.6 percent of Heat misses when he’s on the court.

Plays like this demand defensive attention, even for a non-shooter:

And Jones will continue to grow as a cutter as he gets more comfortable in the Heat system. Miami has been in the top five in drives per game each of the past four years, and they typically rank in the top half of the NBA in passes per contest as well. Guards like Dragic and Johnson who succeed in Miami make efficient plays running toward the hoop — it’s part of the reason role players so often reach new heights within the organization.

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Jones is the latest to do so, and if he can continue to play well, the Heat will face interesting decisions finding time for all of Olynyk, Winslow, Jones and Johnson, out for now with a sports hernia. A glut of talented power forwards who each provide different skills is a great problem to have, and Jones has given Miami an answer in the short- and long-term.

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