De George: The last chapter of the curious case of Derrick Jones

HERSHEY — Derrick Jones ambled off the court at the Giant Center Friday night, towel on his head, a silver medal hanging limply from his hand. He stopped, like most high schoolers have to, to sign an autograph, then walked off into the waiting commiseration of his teammates.

His gait was strained, mostly from the pummeling he’d just taken in the fruitless quest for a PIAA Class AAA title. But weighing him down, too, was the substantial asterisk that Jones carries into his post-high school career.

Jones almost did it all for Archbishop Carroll Friday night. He scored 30 points. Grabbed 18 rebounds. Blocked five shots and deterred many more. Didn’t leave the court for 32 minutes and sent both of the Neumann-Goretti bigs who deigned to slow his freight-train production to the bench with five fouls long before the final whistle.

But befitting the illustrious, near-miss ethos of his career, he was left with a consolation medal, a 69-67 loss, and the toughest physical test of the night: Holding back the emotions of his final high school game.

In a career defined by its caveats, Jones’ final act offered yet another: For all his efforts from the field, all his dogged determination on the boards, the fact that a listless Carroll offense saddled up and rode him to within a whisker of the title, Jones went 4-for-15 from the line. And his team lost by two, meaning that Jones, one of the leading lights of the latest generation of Philadelphia stars whose legacies will far outlive their high school eligibility, to walk off the court without a title to his name in four seasons.

“I’m going to be thinking about it a lot,’ Jones said of the free throws. “It’s something that the past few games, I’ve been 10-for-12, 15-for-17. But it’s real hard, and you’ve just got to get in the gym and knock them down next time.’

Jones is an easy target for criticism, borne of his immeasurable natural ability and the way he glides effortlessly toward gaudy stat lines. With his jump-out-of-the-gym electricity, he’s easy to peg as just a dunker, someone whose talent hadn’t taken the next step toward a polished product.

But this season, he dispelled those perceptions. He became a double-double near-guarantee, a devoted worker on both ends doing more than just the highlight-reel entries in the quest of the greater good. He’s risen to the occasion this season, when Ernest Aflakpui went down with a knee injury after three games, leaving a gaping void in the lane and the Patriots written off in most people’s books.

All season, perhaps never more than Friday, Jones wouldn’t let Carroll’s dream die. At half, while Ryan Daly and David Beatty were held without field goals, Jones had 15 of Carroll’s 27 points to stake them to a three-point lead. With Neumann-Goretti, looking only a fraction of the mythic proportions that have propelled them to five state titles in six years, threatening but never pulling away, Jones dragged Carroll back into contact time and again. He drove the hoop with controlled intensity, defended responsibly. He went off the dribble, bunny-hopped and volleyballed so many rebounds it was hard to keep track. And no matter the harm incurred, he kept going to the hoop — and to the line.

But that was his Waterloo. Jones entered the game a 56.2 percent free throw shooter. He’s struggled at times there, but came off a 10-for-13 performance in the semifinal romp over Cathedral Prep. Just as he had in about every other aspect, hope was always rife that he’d shored up one of the increasingly rare weaknesses in his game. Friday, though, his hopes at the line came up empty, again and again.

Friday epitomized the complication of Jones’ legacy: Carroll doesn’t have a prayer against its albatross Neumann if Jones is anything but stellar, yet the cynics will fixate on that one blemish on the stat line as costing them a title.

“I don’t think it tarnishes his legacy,’ coach Paul Romanczuk said, preparing to cut on a verbal dime with the unavoidable qualifier. “That kid is a champion. Yeah, it doesn’t show up that he won any championships at Carroll, but he went out a warrior. He went out battling. Yeah, he missed some free throws, but he put the team on his back a lot of occasions.’

Greener pastures lie ahead for Jones at UNLV, where his blue-chip potential springs eternal. But Friday, for all the corners he’d turned in an immensely successful career, the only one left led from the Giant Center court to a solemn locker room, with the wrong-colored medal and a dejected final taste of high school basketball.

“It’s just real tough just knowing that you’re so close,’ Jones said, “and having it slip away.’

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply