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‘It was already written’: Undeterred and unbothered, focused work has Dillon Jones ready for NBA draft

By BRETT HEIN - Standard-Examiner | Jun 23, 2024

ISAAC FISHER, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) jogs down the floor as WSU's bench celebrates Jones' made 3-pointer against Eastern Washington on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Ogden.

Dillon Jones began his college career in empty arenas and finished his final home game to a standing ovation, saying goodbye to the Dee Events Center with a hardwood kiss.

The moment was well-earned.

Jones finished No. 1 in steals, No. 2 in assists, No. 3 in rebounds and No. 5 in points in his Weber State career. In his final college campaign, he became the first men's Division I player in at least 31 years to total 600 points, 300 rebounds, 160 assists and 60 steals in one season, and claimed Big Sky Conference MVP.

In his 2024 team workout tour, he's visited Boston, Charlotte, Denver, Golden State, Houston, Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, Toronto and Utah.

Jones has gone to Chicago twice to complete the NBA draft combine. After his first run in 2023, he appeared on a CBS mock draft at 28 and an ESPN list at 59. He's currently No. 35 on a top-prospects board by Yahoo's Krysten Peek. For ESPN's Jonathan Givony, Jones is pick No. 50.

Photo supplied, Idaho Athletics

Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) drives past Idaho's EJ Neal on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Moscow, Idaho.

But with the Weber State great's NBA dreams about to be realized (the draft is June 26-27 on ESPN), Jones has no idea what mock drafts say about him.

Nor does he care.

"The world found out at the combine," Jones said about his pro prospects. "But it was already written, you know. I feel like it was already written."

* * *

Jones was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and raised by his mother with a twin sister, Courtney, and his eight-years-older brother, Eric Washington.

His family never stayed in the same house or apartment for more than a year, as he remembers it, getting by however they could. What money they had for clothes often went to his sister; Dillon couldn't stand seeing her go without and was more interested in Eric's hand-me-downs anyway.

Robert Casey, WSU Athletics

Weber State's Dillon Jones celebrates late in a win over Northern Colorado on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Ogden.

But between his mom, sister, older brother and extended family in the city, there was support.

And basketball.

"It was tough," the often unflappable Jones said. "Basketball was the fun part of it. It's probably why now, basketball is just easy."

Jones can't remember a time when basketball wasn't part of life. Meadowlake Park was his spot in Columbia, with his brother dragging him around wherever he went as Washington -- who has since been an eight-year pro most recently in Italy -- got serious about basketball at Keenan High School while Jones was still young.

"Just trying to have him around as much as possible, putting his eyes in front of things, just keeping him curious about the game," Washington said as he described his involvement in Jones' life. "Even when he couldn't keep up on the court, I think it was empowering just him being in the room, being a fly on the wall.

Emil Vajgrt, Indiana Pacers

Former Weber State player Dillon Jones handles the ball during a pre-NBA Draft workout with the Indiana Pacers on May 31, 2024, in Indianapolis.

"I think that's where he gets his IQ from. ... He didn't just jump right into playing, he was sitting and watching."

As Jones got older, he spent many daylight hours at the gym, trading time between basketball games and "just sitting and BS-ing with friends."

He never made bad decisions, his mother has told him, but was always in trouble.

"It was me and my sister together, we were always into something. And in elementary school, it's like 'walk in a line, button your mouth.' I just wasn't with all that," Jones smiled.

Middle school, he says, with its movement between classes and less supervision, was more his speed, and it was soon that basketball became a serious thing. As Jones entered high school, Washington was finishing his college career (Presbyterian, then Miami-Ohio) and lining up professional opportunities.

Paul Grua, WSU Athletics

In this video still, Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) kisses the court as he checks out of his final home game Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Ogden.

"That helped me kind of stay focused, just always watching his path," Jones said. "Watching my brother do what he was doing -- that's all I wanted to do."

Jones started at Keenan as an eighth grader, eventually winning a state championship as a junior.

Washington remained a key figure, coaching the youngster through workouts Jones described as "tough" and eventually becoming more of a mentor, imparting any and all wisdom Washington earned through his basketball and life experience.

"I just tried to give him both sides, the positives and the negatives," Washington said. "Just letting him know not everything's gonna be positive, not everything's gonna be negative. So when you go through certain things, if you already know that it's going to be some negative, it's not gonna hit you as hard when it comes."

After his state title at Keenan, a coach from Sunrise Christian Academy messaged Jones to see if he'd be interested in attending the Kansas prep school as a senior. Rod Clark, now an assistant at Tennessee, had seen Jones play in Columbia's Chick-fil-A Classic, once the premier high school event every year.

Jones learned Sunrise was a rigid academic environment -- bringing in many non-basketball-playing international students, aside from its growing basketball prominence -- and it "became glaring" that he needed to take the leap and go there.

* * *

Just like he did for Sunrise, Jones signed to Weber State having never seen the place (the lack of college visit was due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

It quickly became a necessity that he was there.

Jones was the only freshman in his first season at Weber State. In those days, a good portion of his offensive touches came in the post with his back to the basket and, less refined as a scorer, he shined as a rebounder, passer and defensive disrupter.

He was roommates with the even more unflappable Isiah Brown.

"You learned from how he went about his stuff. He was big for me. He was never too high, too low, no matter what it was," Jones said. "He helped me through stuff like that."

"Stuff like that," such as getting in his head about his imperfections, letting his passion for the game come through after mistakes in a way that affected his approach and body language. A couple times, that led to being benched.

"The first thing is, you gotta be told the truth," Jones said. "If you don't have a relationship with people that's gonna tell you the truth, then you will never get it because if I didn't know that was something to be addressed, then I would never get better."

He progressed from a do-it-all glue guy to a dynamic primary ballhandler, scoring more than 20 points per night while simultaneously being the nation's premier defensive rebounder. But it was between the ears that mattered more than what happened between the lines.

Jones credits his teammates on both sides of that journey -- the seniors who guided him in his first two years, and the contemporaries and younger players who showed him grace, valuing his intentions that sometimes showed up as mistakes.

"That's being part of a college program," he said. "They would always stick with me in those moments because they knew ... I kind of proved it with my actions, you know? I can say I care about Weber and my team but if I just jumped in the portal, then that's fraudulent. I stayed. People recognize all that."

With nearly free transfer rules and money to be made through NIL avenues, it's harder to come by that experience. But Jones was intentional about making that choice. He had more than enough suitors wanting him to leave Weber State, including some schools in the summer of 2023 willing to line up $300,000 or so to bring him aboard.

With what he'd been told about WSU's coaches and culture, Washington didn't think it made much sense for his brother to change schools.

"Why leave when you worked this hard to put yourself in this position to be the guy, and now it's time to be the guy?" Washington asked. "He needed to feel that. He needs to know what comes with it -- the positives and the negatives in being the guy. Not everybody gets to feel that.

"So now as he becomes a professional, this is something else that he can kind of put in his arsenal to use for whenever he may need it. ... Just traded that for money, trusting that going on this road, he'll make the money later."

* * *

Traveling to a new city every two or three days during the combine-and-workout circuit of May and June, Jones' ambivalence to the mock draft media machinery partially comes from the focus of his work. But part of it comes from the two previous summers.

In 2023, Jones declared for the draft but was not invited to the NBA's G League Elite Camp, the undercard week in Chicago before the official draft combine.

But his inclusion in Damian Lillard's first Formula Zero camp in 2022, which featured 20 college players and 20 prep prospects, cemented his belief that the NBA was a reality for him.

"I wanted to see if I could guard players of that caliber and there was like Marcus Sasser, Caleb Love, Keyonte George, Hunter Sallis. A lot of good guards there," Jones recalls. "I knew if I was gonna make it to the NBA, I would have to guard that type of player. So when I saw I could do that ... I thought I did well."

So his exclusion from events in Chicago didn't deter him. He put his head down and turned in a couple good weeks of workouts with his agency.

Then he got the phone call inviting him to the G League combine as a replacement player. He played so well that he was invited to stay for the NBA combine. Then teams liked him so much that the first round wasn't completely out of the question and withdrawing from the 2023 draft became a real choice.

"I ain't about to put them on no pedestal when they didn't initially -- I had the chip now -- I'm like, they didn't initially even want me here. So I'm going to do what I got to do," Jones said. "So that's when it was like, I can't worry about what people say on the outside because what was actually being done, literally nobody predicted this because they didn't even invite me. Nobody did. I wasn't on mock drafts before the combine. ... I wasn't supposed to be there at the event and then after the combine, I'm on all of these mock drafts. So I was like, it literally doesn't matter ... I'm not gonna throw shade on the game, but there's just so much that goes into it and the best way to work through is to not even worry about it.

"When it comes to mock drafts, it's all a momentum game," he continued. "I don't know what the mock drafts are saying now but like, the last public thing people saw of me was the combine. Was it as great as I played at Weber? Probably not, but like, I didn't play bad. It's a momentum thing ... what really matters is the workouts I'm doing, the interviews I'm doing. What people say from the one public thing, that doesn't mean anything. So I'm kind of back to that same mindset, and I think that's gonna help me in the draft."

It's for those reasons Jones hasn't much thought about being on the cusp of being in the NBA. Whether there is a team or two who like him enough to submit his name in the first round -- Oklahoma City may have enough interest in moving into the end of the first where the string of Minnesota, Denver, Utah and Boston concludes the round -- or whether there is not such a team, his selection at some point in the 58-pick event seems assured.

The kid scraping by on hand-me-downs and days at the city rec center can't afford to think like that, which has informed his approach to team workouts all summer.

"I can't let my hair down thinking that already -- that I'm going to go somewhere but I just don't know where I'm gonna go," Jones said. "That's the moment I feel like I lose it. I ain't believing nothing until it happens."

Washington hasn't thought about any joy or satisfaction in seeing Jones where he is, either, even after all the years of his mentorship and brotherhood.

"I don't really sit in it. It's a great moment and we'll enjoy it. But I think just the way we grew up, just the way we're wired, we're already getting ready for the next thing," Washington said. "It doesn't stop once that happens. If anything, that's when the work begins.

"The reward for conquering one challenge is getting a new challenge."

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