In advance of the 2019-2020 season, the Peachtree Hoops staff will take a glance at each member of the roster in “player preview” fashion. This edition takes on newly acquired center Damian Jones.
In early July and in the midst of NBA Summer League, the Atlanta Hawks made news in sending 2018 first round pick Omari Spellman to the Golden State Warriors in a surprising trade. While much of the attention paid to that transaction focused on the Hawks cutting ties with a (very) recent draft selection, Atlanta acquired future draft capital in the deal and, from a present-day perspective, added an intriguing big man in 2016 first round pick Damian Jones.
Jones, the No. 30 overall pick in 2016, has amassed only 584 minutes of NBA action across three seasons in the NBA. As such, any evaluation of the former Vanderbilt standout must include the reality of small sample size. The 24-year-old did appear in 24 games, making 22 starts, for the Warriors in 2018-19, and that comprised the vast majority of his work at the highest level.
During last season, Jones produced an impressive 71.6 percent field goal percentage and there is every reason to believe he can be an efficient play finisher. There is a raw quality to Jones’ game, partly due to his lack of deployment, and he profiles as a fairly traditional center that will operate in a low-usage offensive role while potentially providing defensive value in Atlanta.
Offensively, Jones’ claim to fame at this juncture would be efficiency but he has flashed some intriguing skill as a passer. That has manifested in the form of a sky-high turnover rate but, if Jones can get that under control, he sees the floor reasonably well and could act as a secondary facilitator if the offense allows.
When considering his archetype, it may seem odd to indicate that Jones has rebounding issues but, within his NBA sample, they are undeniable. His individual rebounding numbers are shaky at best, particularly for a 7-footer, and the Warriors produced only a 69.8 percent defensive rebound rate with Jones on the court last season. That was the worst team rebounding percentage for any member of the Warriors and, in taking things to a big-picture place, Golden State was solidly better on both ends of the floor whenever Jones was on the bench.
That isn’t inherently damning given the Warriors’ obscene level of talent and the team’s ability to deploy tremendous non-center lineups. Still, Jones isn’t dominant in any one area of the floor, making things tricky when examining his short-term and long-term future.
Jones does have solid defensive metrics and, given what he projects to be, his best path to NBA relevance seemingly comes as an impactful defender that also checks a few boxes offensively. In the past, Jones has been carried away when seeking blocks, generating a foul rate that is jarring. There is reason to believe that tendency could evaporate with more seasoning and on-court deployment but, for now, he qualifies as a projected positive defensively, albeit with question marks surrounding that estimate.
In terms of role on the 2019-20 Hawks, Jones appears to be in direct competition with 2019 second round pick Bruno Fernando for minutes as the team’s primary backup center. Alex Len projects as Atlanta’s starter at the center position and, with John Collins able and likely to play center at times, there are only so many minutes to go around. While Fernando could reasonably struggle as a second-round rookie, the Hawks will undoubtedly want to see how the former Maryland star translates to the NBA floor, leaving Jones potentially twisting in the wind.
At the moment, Jones could be the superior option to Fernando but, in reality, there is a school of though that would lead one to believe Jones must be significantly better than Fernando to ward off the challenge of a player that is in the team’s long-term plans. Earlier in the year, though, Jones could have a leg up, particularly if he picks up Lloyd Pierce’s defensive schemes at a faster clip than Fernando.
Jones enters his fourth season on an expiring contract and, for now, there is real uncertainty as to whether he was simply a throw-in piece in the deal that sent Spellman to Golden State. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was part of the Warriors’ front office when Jones was selected with a first round pick, though, and Atlanta could be “buying low” on Jones as a piece that does have some long-term intrigue when considering his age and profile.
There is a scenario in which Jones simply acts as an emergency center for most of the 2019-20 season, simply because Fernando is more talented, Len is (significantly) better and Collins will need time at the center position. There is also a plausible outcome, though, in which Jones carves out a solid, every-night role as a low-minute, low-usage player that doesn’t take a ton off the table and provides back-line defense that could be badly needed on this particular roster.