Commentary: Weber State, basketball fans shouldn’t take loyalty of Lillard or Jones for granted
Robert Casey and Kyzer Armendariz
June has revealed uncommon prospects for fans of Weber State and of basketball in Northern Utah communities. Some around these parts might identify them as blessings, in a sports sense.
Naming them one by one: Damian Lillard and Dillon Jones.
For the fifth time, Lillard is returning to Ogden for a summer basketball get-together, the every-other-year Weber State Basketball Alumni Classic. The 2023 edition is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at the Dee Events Center.
It’s been moved up from its usual August spot in part to allow current overseas pros (the younger alumni group) to participate in this year’s game. Scott Bamforth, Davion Berry, Isiah Brown and Kyndahl Hill are set to play along with mainstays Kyle Bullinger, Ryan Cuff, Jimmy DeGraffenried and Ryan Richardson, with second-time appearances from Harold Arceneaux and Kyle Tresnak. Full rosters are yet to be announced.
Lillard is rightly the focus. A solid, heartily appreciative but at least a little underwhelming crowd, size-wise, comes out each time to see the action. In 2021, the last edition of the classic, Lillard suited up and played in the exhibition game for the first time, scoring 41 points. As he does.
Rob Gray, Associated Press
Lillard, a 10-year NBA veteran, is a seven-time All-Star and seven-time All-NBA selection. He scored 32.2 points per game last season. He won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2021 Summer Olympics. He was voted one of the 75 best players in NBA history in 2021 by a panel of Hall of Fame players and coaches, current players, and past and present broadcasters and basketball writers.
All 50 players from the “NBA at 50” team were so voted for the 75th anniversary; Lillard was one of 25 new additions and one of only 11 active players to make the team.
That player comes back to his mid-major alma mater every other year and helps organize the alumni game. That player suited up in an exhibition for Weber State fans (with an injured abdominal muscle he’d soon have repaired via surgery), dunked a few times and tossed in deep 3-pointers to wow the crowd a few times more than that. That player wore a Weber State jersey for the NBA All-Star 3-point contest four months ago, a contest he won.
If this was another player from the 75th-anniversary team in their prime — say, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jerry West, Larry Bird, George Gervin or Jazz favorites John Stockton and Karl Malone — would more than 2,000 or so fans show up?
Tickets for June 17 are general admission and cost $10 apiece or five for $40. Weber State students get in free with a valid student ID.
Photo supplied, Weber State Athletics
As for Jones, the 6-foot-6 wing/forward hybrid is still in town, and that’s something that can’t be taken for granted.
Jones finished his third season at Weber State with per-game averages of 16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals. He led the country in defensive rebounding by a considerable margin, both in per-game average (10.12) and percentage of available rebounds (35.5%).
He declared for the NBA Draft through the method that allowed him to keep college eligibility and worked out for five NBA teams during May. He was also a replacement call to compete at the NBA G League Elite Camp in Chicago, then played so well that he was one of eight players invited to stay and participate in the NBA Draft Combine.
Some experts had Jones as a top-50 draft prospect when his week in Chicago was over. The star from Columbia, South Carolina, had a clear path to begin a professional career if he so chose, took most of the time provided to make his choice and then withdrew from the draft in the final hour before the deadline.
In March, he told us at the Standard-Examiner that despite strong, persistent overtures from power programs to transfer, he would not be leaving Weber State.
After a life-changing week in Chicago, Jones could have then determined that one more season of college basketball at a different school — one willing to pay him a number with a significant number of zeroes after it to transfer — was the right choice. Though the transfer window is closed, Jones earned his bachelor’s degree this spring and has the graduate transfer option available to him.
But in the midst of that life-altering week, there was no wavering.
“Being at Weber is what got me here,” Jones told the Deseret News while in Chicago. “If I’m gonna stay in school, I’m staying there.”
Sure sounds like that guy named Lillard.
So Tuesday, after spending a weekend decompressing in South Carolina with his family, Jones was back on campus with a whistle around his neck, coaching up basketball camper kids at Weber State.
With the transfer portal open, NIL money flying around and a decent shot at getting drafted, it’s uncommon that any player like Jones would stay at any school like Weber State at any place else in the country. Even in a smaller sample, he’s the only All-Big Sky First Team player from last season who returns to their school for next season; most first-, second- and third-teamers with eligibility remaining have transferred elsewhere.
Some segments of Weber State fans seem to demand championships in order to earn any level of support beyond checking out a box score (or hey, read a game story from yours truly?) online. That attitude is anyone’s right, but it’s one that would make a person miss watching some all-time greats who will enjoy long pro careers — like Jerrick Harding, the program’s career, single-game and Dee Events Center scoring king. Or Jones, currently top five all-time in rebounds and steals, and soon to become one of three WSU players to ever total 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career.
Coaches and returning players are high on the makeup of the 2023-24 roster, but even so: assuming Jones continues his progress with the same degree of work that’s fueled his career so far, one that included several game-winners last season, he’s likely to turn in a season that fans won’t want to miss.
So June has become a time to consider uncommon opportunities for fans of Weber State and of basketball. There aren’t many like Lillard and Jones out there, and chances to witness what they do — right here in Ogden — won’t last forever.