Rooted and with small circle, Dillon Jones to return for 4th season at Weber State
There exists a mid-major basketball player who led the country in defensive rebounding in his third college season while being one of two players nationally to average a line like 16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
With no other context — and with the way college basketball works in 2023 — it would seem a near certainty that such a player would have entered his name into the transfer portal the second the 60-day transfer window opened Monday, chasing as large of a promised NIL endorsement deal the biggest program could offer.
But when it comes to basketball, there’s a small circle of people Dillon Jones cares to listen to: his Weber State coaches; his former AAU coach; and his brother, Eric Washington, the pro who has played overseas since averaging 14 points per game over two seasons at Miami (Ohio) from 2014-16.
And that’s why Jones is set to return to Weber State for his fourth season of college basketball.
“They have my best interest at heart. Outside of those people … I ain’t hearing it. These other people,” Jones said — those who reach out with promises of NIL money despite Jones not being in the portal — “there’s something in it for them. That’s how it works.
“I already knew I wasn’t transferring, so it’s not like that was a question. I don’t listen to things people just say to say. I don’t jump for joy when people talk about me. I don’t beg for attention from people to have validation from them. I just listen to the people I trust that have got me this far because I know they have my best interest — so when situations like this happen, it’s really easy for me.”
There wasn’t much of a thought for the 6-foot-6 point forward from Columbia, South Carolina, that the 2023-24 season would be anything else but Jones and WSU’s eight other expected returners, which includes the entire 2022-23 starting lineup, taking the floor at the Dee Events Center.
“I’m excited. It’s something we haven’t had since I’ve been here, to return that much continuity. So that will be fun. In today’s game, you can’t really take that for granted,” Jones said. “We’ll go into the season with some momentum and have a chip on our shoulders to improve things but also welcoming in the new guys and having them buy into the culture that we’ve set. It’s going to be a fun experience.”
That’s similar to how Jones spoke in the moments just after the 2022-23 season ended, minutes after his team fell in a double-overtime semifinal loss to Montana State, with first-year head coach Eric Duft and marksman Steven Verplancken Jr. by his side. He referenced returning players, redshirt freshman Chris Dockery and incoming freshmen Marko Sarenac, Nemanja Sarenac and Viljami Vartianen.
“Every year, we’ve almost had to build a new team,” Jones told a media contingent in Boise, Idaho. “We’re returning all five starters, we’ve got good freshmen on our bench, we’ve got a freshman that redshirted that everyone’s going to love, our recruits that we’ve got committed are going to shock a lot of people and we’re going to be rolling.”
Jones made big strides in on-the-ball explosiveness and one-on-one defense this season and he thinks each of his teammates has similar steps to make.
“Everyone can get better. Our coaches will give everyone a great plan on what we can get better, and so if we’re locked into that, we’ll be right where we want to be,” he said.
The season’s turnaround — from a 2-7 start with one of the nation’s worst defenses to a 16-8 mark and a third-place conference finish with a top-flight defense — should pay dividends, Jones says. He credits Duft and assistant coaches for making constant adjustments.
“There’s no perfect science on how things are done or how to win games, so the main thing for us was to do it the right way. If we do it like that, eventually it was going to come and help us in the long run. That’s all we were focused on,” Jones said. “We were catching Ls but we knew we were going to figure it out if we kept doing things the right way. Sometimes you can sneak through and get wins in the moment but you know in your heart and your mind if you’re not doing it the right way, you’re going to fade.
“This year, we stayed true to doing it the right way, figuring it out and staying with it. I think that’s the culture here with Coach Duft.”
As for Jones, he plans to continue work on his shot, his handle and his body, which will help him increase explosiveness.
His 3-point percentage went down, though he moved from only taking catch-and-shoot 3s to adding pull-up and off-the-dribble attempts.
“But I feel like I had to lead the country in in-and-outs,” Jones quipped. “I want to keep working on that. And … being a better player on the ball since this year I played on the ball more than I ever have my whole career, even in high school.”
It’s not Plan A for Jones to be the primary ball handler next season, much like it wasn’t this season either.
“I had to make adjustments on the fly, but sometimes it’s hard to get better during the year at stuff like that. So I’ll get better being on the ball,” he said.
Duft is sure there’s even more to Jones’ game, and that has to do with his work and preparation.
“It’s not magic. He doesn’t step out there and just gut it out; he’s prepared. And every single day, he does everything he can in every aspect of his life to make sure he’s playing his best,” Duft said. “He’s as good as we’ve had in a long time.”
So why isn’t Jones looking to do that for a new program?
To him, that’s a rhetorical question.
“Why would I?” Jones said.
His thoughts — which are many, and seemingly well-developed — sound a lot like every other top-level player in the last 10 or so years who started and finished college ball at Weber State and have enjoyed successful professional careers.
“I play for a good program that’s respected. I’ve proven that I’m a good player here and I’ve established myself not only in the program but in the community,” Jones said. “We’ve won every year I’ve been here; we haven’t got over the hump yet but that’s soon to come.
“In my head, there’s really no reason to leave. People always want to talk about the portal and I always say, like, what reasoning would be behind me doing that? The risk-reward ratio isn’t adding up. I’m in an established spot, which is rare to find in college basketball. I’ve got stability in the program. There’s really no logical reason for me to leave.”
The big-picture evaluation comes down to what you want as a college player, he says. Jones framed it as a choice between money, attention, social media fame and people telling you how good you are or having a foundation, a legacy and on-floor production for a team that is counting on you.
“That’s what you should be in this for, and that’s what I’ve got here (at Weber State). There’s no reason for me to risk that, in my opinion,” he said.
“If you’re into the fluff and the attention-chasing and being able to say, ‘Oh, all these schools hit me,’ I’m not in it for that. I’m in it more for the success, the ability to have somewhere to go back to,” Jones expounded. “A lot of these players won’t have homes. They can’t go back to a school and show up and have people there who love them. Maybe right now it doesn’t matter, I’m broke as hell and ain’t taking no money but, in the long run, those things will hold value for me.”
Jones and Duft have come to see eye-to-eye on most things basketball, which can’t always be said for star players and their coaches.
“Do you know how many people try to get that college decision right? I think about people like (former WSU guard) Isiah Brown. People try to get their decisions right and just can’t get it right for a while and I somehow got mine right on the first try, so I don’t think it’s smart to chance that.”
Though it won’t involve the transfer portal, a momentous summer still awaits. After three years, Jones said he’s set to earn a bachelor’s degree in professional sales with a minor in sports coaching education.
“I take care of myself outside of the court. I do what the coaches ask me,” Jones said after his team’s semifinal loss in the Big Sky tournament. “I don’t be out doing nothing crazy.”
Jones said he’s also eyeing the NBA Draft to line up underclassmen workouts, which will allow him to get feedback from scouts and keep his college eligibility. The hope is that will reveal additional help like the kinds of high-level direction he got last summer at Damian Lillard’s first Formula Zero camp.
Barring the type of evaluation that would take returning to Weber State off the table, which Jones doesn’t expect to get yet, he’ll bring those things back to Ogden. He’ll add to his career totals — he’s now fifth all-time at WSU in rebounds (833), fifth in steals (147) and 22nd in points (1,138) — and try to get WSU back to the top of the Big Sky for the first time since 2016.
“I think I did a good job this year but I know there are more steps to be taken, more to accomplish, so I’m ready,” Jones said. “Anybody who knows me knows that anything that’s happened isn’t a fluke or mistake. I’ve worked hard for it, I’ve been through a lot. I pride myself in staying with the process even if it didn’t seem like it was going to go like that to start.
“And it’s going to be exciting. I feel like the team is supportive of me and of each other. There’s no animosity about who is taking the shots or getting the ball. So that gives me confidence. … We’ve all got everyone’s best interest at heart. Everyone’s got each other’s back; nobody is looking over their shoulder wondering about it.”