Jones’ family gave him an unshakable work ethic

RADNOR — Derrick Jones didn’t grow up watching the NBA. He wasn’t caught up in the whirlwind of March Madness.

What Jones knew about the game of basketball was what he saw on the courts of Chester, from the group of acquaintances he kept on the blacktop. From that group, his early role model was profound.

“My brother was the best player to me,’ Jones said last week. “When I started playing, I always had that mindset that I always had to be better than what he was. I wanted to be the best.’

Jones is five years younger than his brother, Lakeem Johnson, a 2010 Chichester grad who played varsity for the Eagles. From the time Jones was a star in the 7/8-year-old Chester Biddy League, Johnson was responsible for furnishing daily challenges away from the realm of organized games. While Jones’ stock shot up on the AAU circuit, the work put in away from the scouts, spectators and sponsors is what truly drove his rise.

“It was kind of blood, sweat and tears, because we had a basketball court out back, I always challenged him to make him better,’ Johnson said. “As he got older, he got better than I am, and I respect that. I always pushed him to the limit to make him better.’

That influence isn’t lost on Jones. He’s taken massive steps in four years at Archbishop Carroll, a launching pad that propelled him onto recruiting radars of national powers. Jones’ game has diversified under the stiff challenges presented by PIAA tournaments and Catholic League gauntlets.

But as he looks back on a distinguished high school career and ahead to a bright future at UNLV, Jones’ first words of praise are always reserved for the most powerful force shaping his career.

“He did a lot for me because when I was coming up,’ Jones said of his brother. “He was that player. He taught me a lot of things.’

Those lessons inform the player Jones has become, a CV that includes being selected as the 2014-15 Daily Times boys basketball Player of the Year.

Joining Jones on the All-Delco team are the Haverford School duo of Shawn Alston and Lamar Stevens, Episcopal Academy’s Nick Alikakos, Penn Wood’s Malik Jackson and Ridley’s Brett Foster.

It’s the second selection for Alston, Jones and Jackson. Half of the team is composed of underclassmen, with a pair of juniors (Stevens and Foster) and the sophomore Alikakos. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.


You can forgive Jones if the itinerary of all-star classics starts to meld together in his mind. There was one in Memphis last week, then one in Indianapolis this week. He’ll jetset to Los Angeles later in the month for one he’s particularly looking forward to, then there’s the Jordan Brand Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

But Jones can remember with unflinching accuracy the steps that landed him on all those flights. He can rattle off the roster of his first AAU team, coached by his father, Derrick Sr. He retells the winding path his AAU career has taken, though various mergers and alterations in team names and personnel. But what stands out most prominently are the experiences away from view, the basketball crucible that formed the player he is today.

Jones Sr. often had to drag his son off the court behind their house in Chester after dark, culminating hours putting up shots and honing his game. There were numerous sessions on the court where Jones took his lumps against opponents five or six years his elder, testing his promise against the physicality and guile of more established players.

Jones’ proclivity as a gym rat was a given for those around him in his youth. “If our friends were around, and they asked where Derrick was,’ Johnson said, “they would know automatically he was in the gym.’

All that toil provided Jones the best of both developmental worlds, cultivating his varied skillset. Among peers, like when he was named an all-star in Chester’s well-known Biddy League in his youth, he could polish his post skills, being taller than most his age. But when he competed with his brother’s crowd, those feats of sheer physical superiority weren’t enough. He was forced to expound maximum effort and develop skills beyond his highlight-reel dunking ability and pogo-stick hops on the glass. That challenge is what Jones credits for developing his ballhandling and perimeter game, something he’ll lean on at UNLV, where he’ll play as a two guard/small forward.

Beyond the Xs and Os, playing up in age kept Jones grounded, a pursuit that would’ve been well-nigh impossible for some players. Jones blossomed on the AAU scene after seventh grade, garnering national attention as one of the 20 or 30 best prospects in the country. Being labeled locally as the next Chester hoops star (even after his family moved to Marcus Hook when Jones was in fourth grade) carried an enormous amount of pressure for the soft-spoken giant.

“The spotlight was just there,’ Jones said. “At first, I didn’t know how to handle it. I would just walk around and everybody would be like, ‘˜oh that’s Derrick Jones, that’s Derrick Jones.’ And I wouldn’t know how to handle it.

“As much as I wanted to be just that regular kid like everybody else, I couldn’t be. I had to be that one person because I knew there were little kids looking up to me, so I had to be that person, but still had to be me and stay humble and stay in the gym and keep working.’

Johnson was an omnipresent aide. He instilled in his brother the mantra of “fear none, respect all,’ keeping him tenacious on the court yet humble off it. Motivating Jones to continue improving was never a challenge, Johnson said, nor was shielding him from the crescendo of hype that the AAU’s circus-like atmosphere can promote.

“I would just be like, ‘˜listen bro, it’s a lot of attention, but at the same time, you have to stay focused,” Johnson said. “You have to stay humble, you have to stay away from the negativity. You have to remain humble.’

Jones has his pick of high school suitors. A homecoming to Chester didn’t appeal to him, even as the Clippers’ rose to national prominence. The powers of the Catholic League jockeyed for his commitment, but Carroll separated itself from the pack. Jones was looking for a school that needed him, and with a track record in Chester with success stories like DJ Irving and Yosef Yacob, Carroll fit the bill.

The deal was mutually beneficial. Jones’ presence helped perpetuate Carroll’s recent success, attracting AAU teammates Josh Sharkey and David Beatty among a bevy of other talents to Matsonford Road, which in turn helped Jones not only improve his game but manage the spotlight that accompanied that growth.

“I think that based on the type of character young men that we have in the program, we’ve been fortunate to attract that,’ Carroll coach Paul Romanczuk said. “And the level of talent they have, a kid like Derrick doesn’t say, ‘˜I have to do this all by myself the next two, three years.’ He’s such an unselfish kid. He wants to be surrounded by other talented kids. It’s not in his nature to be guy who takes 30 shots a game and say, ‘˜you guys get crumbs.’ That’s not his nature.’

In four seasons, Jones became the leading scorer in program history, his 1,625 points surpassing 2012 Daily TimesPlayer of the Year Juan’ya Green. He led the Patriots to deep runs in the PIAA Class AAA tournament, including this season’s march to the final in which Jones scored 30 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. His numerous accolades — in addition to all that viral video, dunk contest footage — include being named Class AAA state Player of the Year by Pennsylvania sportswriters.

As much as the polished, well-rounded player that leaves Carroll differs from the gawky teen that entered it, so too has Jones’ mentality transformed from an unsure youngster trying to harness his abilities to a confident, secure young adult on the precipice of a bright future.

“Most people would say that I’m cocky,’ Jones said. “I’m not cocky; I’m just confident. I’m just a player that I know what I can do, and I know that I’m going to do it to my maximum ability.’

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