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Exploring the defensive value of Damian Jones

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Orlando Magic v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Roughly halfway through Las Vegas Summer League play, it was announced that the Hawks had acquired the 30th pick of the 2016 NBA draft, Damian Jones, from the Golden State Warriors (along with an all-important second round pick) in exchange for the 30th pick of the 2018 NBA draft, Omari Spellman.

Despite the fact that Jones has been in the league for three years, he has played just 584 minutes as compared to the 805 minutes that Spellman logged in an even injury-shortened rookie season last year. In that context, it’s instinctive to view Jones as what he is in the form of a prospect. He is barely 24 years of age after all.

With that said, Atlanta might not have the luxury of handling him as they do the other young prospects on the roster. Apart from the Hawks and Jones unexpectedly agreeing to an extension by the October deadline, the big man will be a restricted free agent next summer, and that outcome only arrives if Atlanta even extends a qualifying offer, which is not certain (or potentially even likely) to happen.

We will never know the primary reasons the organization chose to move away from Spellman and to instead give Jones a test drive. Jones doesn’t have anything close the set of ball skills that Spellman possesses. The development of Alex Len last season as a shooter might suggest that the team thinks it can help Jones go down a similar development path this season, but Jones has struggled mightily at the free throw line to this point in his short career, which might temper expectations in this area.

Considering that offensive projection, the value that Jones brings as a prospect on the defensive end of the court might be what generated the most interest in him on the part of his new team.

Likely to start the season in a competition for backup center minutes behind Len, Jones might not have a ton of time to establish himself as the season-long understudy. Rookie Bruno Fernando is certain to get playing time at some point this season considering Atlanta’s substantial investment to acquire his services.

It seems possible that the organization just landed on the evaluation that Spellman would never be a functional defensive fit with their rising star that mans the power forward position, John Collins. As such, Jones could serve as a worthwhile template to explore in terms of defensive front court makeup.

In short, Collins is currently not a strong enough rim protector to anchor defensive lineups for long stretches. He also struggles, at least at times, on the defensive glass when facing some of the bigger centers and power forwards in the league. Len proved to be a decent defensive complement to Collins last season. Jones may have slightly reduced size comparatively, but has more mobility and athleticism than Len. The rookie, Fernando, looks to be a similar athlete as Jones even if he is not quite as big.

Last season, the few games in which Len took a healthy DNP-CD arrived when the Hawks were switching on defense across all five positions. He just lacks the type of athleticism and agility to keep up with quicker ball-handlers when Lloyd Pierce is deploying more malleable lineups. Jones and Fernando likely have enough mobility to play at the center position when Atlanta might choose to deploy a very switch-heavy defensive scheme.

In short, I think the evaluation of Jones this season will primarily be how he functions as a rotation big that might get more playing time in games in which the defensive plan calls for a heavy dose of switching.

So, let’s explore what he has demonstrated thus far as an NBA player.

This possession is an example of what it looks like when Jones is kind of putting it all together. His positioning when Len is looking to set a screen for Kent Bazemore is perfect. He makes some contact with Bazemore as a way to help his teammate, Quinn Cook, to not lose track of his man.

When Trae Young tries to create with dribble penetration, Jones helps cut off his path while not losing track of his man. This looks simple, but there are not a ton of big men in the league that can impact as many different actions as Jones did on this possession.

When defending in isolation, he is pretty consistent with his technique. On this possession (one in which he he is defending the player he would eventually be traded for), he demonstrates a nearly flawless posture and ability to “sit and slide.”

Match-ups against other physical bigs has often resulted in foul trouble, but it is seldom that he gets pushed around by even the strongest centers in the league.

On this play, Steven Adams tries to work his way toward the rim but Jones does not even give him an inch. This trait, specifically, will serve him well when deployed with Collins.

He generally has a good feel for when and how to help at the rim. That’s especially the case when the opposing teams set allows him to set up at or near the baseline.

Zach LaVine almost drops one of the best defenders in the league, Draymond Green, on this play with his in-and-out dribble. Jones helps deny the shot without creating an obvious opportunity for LaVine to drop a pass to his man, Wendell Carter, Jr.

This is Jones operating in typical pick and roll coverage. Once again, the technique is very good. He makes himself as wide as he can by extending his arms. This allows him to present himself in the path of Paul George while also not giving Steven Adams a chance to get to the rim behind him.

On this possession, we can see Jones defending post pick and roll action when the offense was able to force a switch. He is one of the few centers in the league that can keep LaVine in front of him this effectively.

He eventually gets help from Kevin Durant, but that’s not random. Jones knew where help was available and worked hard to push LaVine toward it.

This is an example of a situation in which the technique and execution disappear. On this play, Jones ends up off of the ball and on the perimeter. Note that he knows what he is supposed to do, but the execution is not there.

He is supposed to help with a “dig” on Schroder. The objective of a “dig” is to force the ball handler to pick up his dribble. Jones whiffs and Schroder gets the lay up.

To be fair, centers get very few actual repetitions doing things like this. So it is a little impressive that he recognize the technique for which the situation called.

Still, this possession fairly captures how his defensive value is not the same when he is both away from the play and away from the rim.

This possession captures a lot of what drives his foul trouble (career 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes) in that he very frequently reacts to ball fakes and head fakes. He’s gotten better at not leaving the floor when reacting to them, but Jones still has a tendency to bring his arms down and make the foul call quite obvious for the officials.

When considering the lack of veteran depth at the center position on the Hawks roster, it will be critical for Jones to improve his ability to defend without fouling. It is perhaps his biggest question mark on that end of the floor.

After looking back at Jones’ performance as a defender in the league to date, it seems obvious that Spellman profiled as a lesser prospect on that end of the floor. When considering the trajectory Collins has as an offensive player, it’s not hard to imagine that Atlanta decided that they’d search for a big man that brings a different value distribution as a player. Jones, after all, will never develop the shooting and ball handling prowess Spellman has.

After the Hawks finished 28th in defensive rating last season, Jones could be an acquisition aimed to bring better execution on that end of the court for the 2019-2020 NBA season. It remains to be seen as to the kind of impact he’ll have, or even how much he’ll play if Fernando emerges, but Jones does have the skill set to contribute in a positive manner.