On most days, whether it’s enthusiastically galloping through a South Bay Lakers layup line or fearlessly diving into a crowded restricted area for a loose ball, Jemerrio Jones can almost always be found with what has become his signature expression — a smile.
His infectious grin, which is wide and genuine, should not, however, be confused for aloofness, or a lack of focus.
Jones, an undrafted rookie out of New Mexico State, has arguably been the most physical and hardworking player in the Lakers’ G League affiliated club in South Bay this year.
This is partly out of necessity. Unlike notable current parent squad contributors like Alex Caruso and recent draftees Isaac Bonga and Moe Wagner, Jones did not enter this season with the South Bay Lakers with any buzz-worthy attention or lofty expectations, with many viewing him merely as a potential flier.
Although Jones was named Western Athletic Conference player of the year as a senior, he failed to land with an NBA organization in last year’s draft due to genuine concerns over his optimal position, thin frame and non-existent jumper.
Since landing in the G League however, Jones earned a spot in South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl’s regular rotation, and quickly turned heads among fans and team officials — Karl himself called him the “Draymond Green of the G League” — by doing what he does best: Working his ass off.
Those efforts were rewarded on Friday evening, as it was reported that the Lakers planned to ink the 23-year-old to a two-year-deal with a team option for the 2019-20 season, a plan they followed through on Sunday morning. Even just scoring such a deal is a major accomplishment that isn’t taken for granted by a player who has had to fight for every inch in his life thus far.
“You have to play every game like it’s your last, cause you never know who is watching,” Jones recently said (via the South Bay Lakers’ Twitter account) prior to his Lakers’ debut.
“I come from nothing, really though,” Jones continued. “I come from the struggle, so I know what it takes. It took me a lot to get here — so I run with it.”
And for what Jones lacks in perceived NBA talent and skillset, he makes up for two-fold with a bruising play-style and a seemingly endless motor. Basically, Jones plays every possession as if his basketball life depended on it, which it probably does because of his unorthodox game and measurables for a player his size. Standing at 6’5” with “shoes on,” Jones consistency puts up center-like numbers through his almost unfathomable rebounding rate.
In his senior year with New Mexico State, Jones broke the ‘WAC’ single-season record for rebounds (450) and became the first NCAA player since 1997 to register 20+ rebounds in three straight contests. He would have five such games by season’s end.
So how does a player with Jones’ listed height corral so many boards against bigs who only seem to be getting bigger? “Sonar” according to Chris Jans, his Aggies Head Coach.
Jones does not simply have a “nose for the ball” when it comes to recognizing angles en route to gobbling up rebounds, he also has impeccable timing. When paired with his impressive effort level, this sense for when to go up helps create rebounding opportunities that are scarcely made available to most players, and almost ever for wings.
Jones’ rebounding prowess has only continued in his time with South Bay, as among G-League players who have appeared in at least 35 games this season, Jones is averaging the fifth-most rebounds per contest (9.6) while also being the shortest player on the list.
But while cleaning the glass is Jones’ most polished and effective skill, he also has the makings of becoming a versatile defender.
Like his aforementioned timing when it comes to rebounding, Jones has similarly great instincts when it comes to jumping passing lanes and anticipating his opposition’s shot attempts. In his last ten G League outings, Jones was averaging 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
Although Jones is not equipped with the typical physical dimensions of above-average NBA perimeter defenders, he has a great knack for closing space and funneling his opposition with solid foot-speed and lateral containment skills.
At this stage of his career, Jones seems to be much more effective in team-centric defensive situations as opposed to individual. According to Synergy, Jones is in the 89th percentile in defending the primary pick-and-roll ball-handler, in the 90th percentile in checking the roll man and 85th percentile against hand-off possessions in the G League this year.
He is still susceptible to getting exploited in the post and in the isolation, respectively, partly due to his thin frame, but how much Jones clearly gives a damn on that end is a great starting point to build off of down the road.
Where Jones truly has question marks — and the area that ultimately might make or break his burgeoning career — is the offensive end.
Jones has very little self-creation ability in conjunction with a dubious perimeter game (he averages less than one 3-point attempt per contest this season). The majority of his points in his time with South Bay this year have been generated mostly through put-backs, in transition and on cuts.
According to his offensive synergy data, Jones has failed to qualify as anything “above average” when it comes to their play type tracking information.
While his off-ball skills are important to possess, the numerical evidence, when backed up with his lack of shake and individual scoring, are red flags that he must address when it comes to producing at the next level.
One area that Jones has shown some optimistic results, though, is his passing ability. Although not in possession of consistent primary pick-and-roll creation skills, Jones (3.5 assists per contest) has displayed genuinely intriguing feel in finding his teammates, while also flashing the occasional highlight reel play like this sick find earlier in the season.
Although there is likely not a star in the making when it comes to Jones’ future, there is little doubt that he will offer the Lakers, and any team he eventually sticks with, an unrelenting knack and joy of doing the proverbial “little things.”
That’s an area that the Lakers in particular have been severely lacking in all season, and potentially where Jones could make enough of an impact to stick.
Promisingly, Jones not only recognizes what his eventual niche is, but seemingly embraces it. That’s an important distinction. Doing the “dirty work” and risking his body for the sake of his team has been Jones’ golden ticket to where he has gotten thus far, and he has no intention of stopping now.
“I don't just get buckets, and the flashy things. I do deflections, hustle, 50-50 ball, I am going to dive for the ball. All the little things you need in a player, I do it,” Jones said.
For Jones, and players of his ilk, this contract with the Lakers does not offer up a moment to exhale, because unlike those blessed with physical talents and elite skills, hard work is a necessity. That’s something Jones not only seemingly believes in, but lives by, one 50-50 ball at a time.
All quotes transcribed via @SouthBayLakers if not otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Synergy. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.