CHICAGO — The safety net was there for Damian Jones if he wanted it.
A change in NCAA rules would have allowed the Vanderbilt center — a Baton Rouge native and graduate of Scotlandville Magnet High School — to declare for the NBA draft, test the waters and return to school.
Instead, Jones is jumping in with both feet.
“I thought about it,” Jones said this week at the NBA draft combine. “But I felt like it was a good time for me to leave.”
Not long ago, Jones seemed an unlikely candidate for early entry to the NBA.
It’s not that he was without potential. At Scotlandville, he had the size and athleticism to hint at a future in professional basketball. But it was only one potential path for a stellar student in the school’s engineering magnet program, pursued by Vanderbilt and Stanford, among other elite academic universities.
“I really felt that he always had a chance to be a CEO of some corporation,” Scotlandville coach Carlos Sample said.
But Sample also saw in Jones the potential to be a future NBA draft pick.
“I always thought he would be a four-year guy (in college),” Sample said. “At the same time, me personally — and I have high expectations for all my kids — I always envisioned him being a lottery pick. It all depended on him and his work ethic when he got to Vanderbilt.”
It took Jones some time to see that in himself.
Though he grew up dreaming of the NBA, Jones’ pursuit of pro basketball never was singular. He interned at a chemical plant before his senior year at Scotlandville. Jones’ parents, Sample said, “stress discipline and integrity.” Academics were a priority.
But after a freshman season at Vanderbilt in which he averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots per game, Jones said, the path to the NBA came into clearer focus.
“My freshman year I really thought about it,” Jones said. “I thought about working hard, maybe spending two years in college and working hard to get there.”
A strong sophomore season followed — 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game — but Jones opted to return for his junior season, hoping for a run in the NCAA tournament and one more year of maturity. He averaged 13.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks and decided it was time to jump into the draft with both feet.
It’s not that his academic pursuits are taking a back seat. Jones, who made the SEC Academic Honor roll each of the past two seasons, said he’s 23 hours shy of an engineering science degree from Vanderbilt.
But at 20 years old and with his game blossoming, Jones was ready to chase his NBA dream.
At the combine last week, Jones measured at 6-foot-11½ in shoes and 244 pounds. Those are the measurables of a legitimate NBA center, as are his 8-foot-11 standing reach and his 7-foot-3¾ wingspan. His hands measured at 10½ inches wide, the widest of any measured at the combine.
“I like him,” Jonathan Givony of Draft Express said. “He’s an impressive kid physically and off the court, too. He’s really intelligent. He can run the floor, he can block shots. He rebounds. He’s not clueless offensively. All those things add up. It’s not easy to find guys with that kind of frame.”
Even after three collegiate seasons, Jones is raw. He’s working on refinement.
Jones is working out in California with fellow CAA agency clients including Providence’s Kris Dunn, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Wichita State’s Ron Baker and Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress, hoping to polish his game.
“I’ve been working on my offense a lot, trying to create more separation, maintaining contact,” Jones said. “In college, you can get away with going around a guy. In the NBA, you have longer guys, so you’ve got to create more contact between you and the man.”
Jones also is working to prove that he has “a consistent motor,” he said, saying that’s one of the things NBA teams most want to see from him.
He met with several of them at the combine, including the Hawks, Spurs, Pistons, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics and Nets, and Jones is being projected anywhere from the late first round — Givony has him landing in Charlotte with the 22nd pick — to the middle of the second. ESPN analyst Chad Ford ranks Jones the No. 41 prospect in the draft.
Wherever he lands in the draft, Jones feels prepared for it. And whenever he hears his name called, it will be a thrill for Jones and the people in Baton Rouge who saw the NBA in his future, perhaps even before he saw it himself.
“I’m going to be just as proud as I’ve been of him from day one up until now,” Sample said. “I’m excited and elated just to see what team gets that gift, because they will get a gift. When they draft him, they won’t be sorry that they picked him.”