Before the start of the 2018-19 season, Damian Jones’ NBA future was a little bit murky. He was entering his third year in the league and, to that point, had only played in a total of 25 games for the Golden State Warriors.
To add to that, the Warriors had a decision to make regarding his contract. They could either pick up his fourth-year option to ensure that he would be on the roster through 2020, or decline it, making him a free agent at the end of the year.
The Warriors ended up picking up his option, and to top it off, he won the starting center job out of training camp with DeMarcus Cousins injured. He was impressive during Golden State’s first 24 games that season, showing off his ability to finish around the rim and set hard screens.
But in early December, he tore his left pectoral muscle and needed surgery. He was ruled out for the season, but managed to return to the court in the Western Conference Finals — albeit not being much of a factor.
With the Warriors reshaping their roster this summer, Jones was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Omari Spellman. This season, he’s played in 15 of the Hawks’ 16 games in what has been his first meaningful minutes since rehabbing from his injury.
“It was weird. You kind of lose some of your rhythm being out for so long. It takes a little bit to get back, it takes some game reps to get back,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to focus this early in the season, just trying to get back to how I was before and getting things going again.”
The Hawks were dealt a major blow earlier this month when starting center John Collins was suspended by the league for 25 games for violating the NBA’s drug policy. His absence initially created a gaping hole up front.
Collins is one of the best young big men in the NBA. He’s an athletic player who finishes strong at the rim, runs the pick-and-roll efficiently with Trae Young and acts as a defensive anchor in the paint. His absence presented a bit of a dilemma for Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, as he sought to find an answer to temporarily replace Collins in the lineup.
“I think John and Trae are the most dynamic pick-and-roll tandem in the league. To not have John, we miss a big part of our offense,” Pierce said before a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “I say it all the time, John is the most significant part of what we do because of his ability to force defenders to come and help when he rolls, and his ability to catch lobs. What that does is it opens up three-point shooting.”
To replace Collins in the starting lineup, Pierce turned to Jones. In his first start of the season on Nov. 12, a win over the Denver Nuggets, Jones put up 8 points and 3 rebounds while shooting 80 percent from the field.
He followed that up with 14 points and 8 rebounds shooting 87.5 percent from the field, albeit in a loss to the Phoenix Suns. In total, he’s averaged 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game and shot 69.4 percent from the field as a starter this season. Those numbers are up from his production as a starter with the Warriors.
Pierce has been impressed with the way Jones has responded and what he’s been able to do on the court in the place of Collins.
“Damian is a guy who’s filling that role with Trae. He can play in pick-and-rolls, you have to defend that,” Pierce said. “That helps Trae, it gives him an option. Now, when the weak-side defenders start coming in, we’ll get corner threes, we’ll get skips. Maybe they don’t help as much and Trae can get downhill, but he just presents at the rim extremely well just as John has always done.”
Jones has developed a nice little chemistry with Young on the court. He’s been able to carry over some of the same things that he was doing in Golden State prior to his injury. He’s a mobile big man who’s able to set screens and roll to the rim. He has good hands and is always ready to catch a pass from Young.
As he adjusts to a new team, he credits Young for making the game and his transition to the Hawks much easier.
“The pick-and-roll aspect, it’s trying to get behind the defense. As coach always says, watch whenever Trae is coming off. Trae’s a great passer, he finds open guys and makes everything easier on the court,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “It’s been playing defense, finding different areas to get open, finishing when Trae or whoever throws a lob. Or off the pick, finishing at the rim and stuff like that.”
While Jones has been relatively positive on the offensive end and on the glass, his defense has been one aspect that could be improved. In Golden State, foul trouble was sometimes an issue. This season, he’s averaging three fouls per game.
He has the ability to be a strong interior defender. He has good size and length, and he’s mobile enough to be able to anchor a defense in the paint. He played alongside a few decent defensive players with Warriors, and he’s trying to take what he learned from them and apply that with the Hawks.
“Just things that I’ve been watching over the years, watching guys like Draymond [Green], [David West], Zaza [Pachulia], JaVale [McGee],” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Seeing how they play and just trying to take things from them defensively and offensively, things like that and try to bring it here.”
And part of the reason that Jones believes he’s been able to transition somewhat seamlessly with Atlanta is the style of play. A lot of what Golden State did revolved around having a dynamic point guard in Stephen Curry who made the game easier for everyone else. Curry had players around him who could shoot and finish at the rim in an up-tempo offense.
When Jones arrived in Atlanta, he felt as if the offensive system the Hawks ran was similar to what he was accustomed to. In his second year, Young is one of the most explosive point guards in the league who loves getting out in transition. Jones felt like he could definitely build upon his production with the Warriors playing in this system.
“The system here is not too far from what I was used to in Golden State,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to carry that over to where I am now. It’s been good so far.”
The Hawks are an extremely young team with plenty of growing pains to go through. After starting off the season 3-3, they’ve since lost 9 of their last 10 games after losing Collins. They’ve also been without Kevin Huerter recently, who is another key part of their young core.
Despite that, Jones sees a group that is trying to establish themselves in the league. It’s been a couple of seasons since the Hawks were last relevant.
This group here has the potential to perhaps turn things around.
“We’re just playing hard, we’re trying to make a name for ourselves,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, they had some momentum but couldn’t really finish it. They had some early injuries and things like that. But just keep pushing and pushing and playing hard.”
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