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Dillon Jones conquers mental battle to become an all-time great at Weber State

By BRETT HEIN - Standard-Examiner | Mar 2, 2024

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.

OGDEN — As players stood at the start of senior night proceedings, an unexpected wave hit Dillon Jones.

He’d just taken his final warm-up free throw at the Dee Events Center. The final anthem. This was his final home game.

He grabbed a towel and wiped his eyes several times while KJ Cunningham and Steven Verplancken Jr. were recognized before him, then took the court with his family, held up a framed jersey, and put on a smile with puffy, wet eyes.

“I try not to get caught up in all that stuff but it was hard to ignore it, you know?” Jones said. “I was surprised I was getting emotional but it just shows the real investment I’ve had here. This school became part of my journey, not even in basketball, but just me growing up, giving me stability. This place was big for that because I honestly needed that.

“That’s the first time I ever had emotions but didn’t know where they came from. It was just out of nowhere. The moment got me.”

Tanner Ecker, Montana Athletics

Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) shoots over Montana's Te'Jon Sawyer, right, as WSU's Handje Tamba, left, looks on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Missoula, Mont.

One game after recording the first 30-point, 20-rebound game in the 46-year history of the Dee Events Center, Jones inked his final Purple Palace page with 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a win over Northern Arizona.

When head coach Eric Duft subbed him out with 1:38 left, his departure included taking a knee at center court and kissing the Weber State logo before embracing Duft on the sideline.

His home-court career began in an empty Dee Events Center due to COVID-19 restrictions and ended with more than 5,000 fans giving him a standing ovation, with several among them chanting M-V-P.

“Kissing the court, I don’t even know if people still do that these days but, you know, I can do that because I’ve been here,” Jones said. “If I was a transfer and doing all that, I can’t really call this place home. But that was my last game here. It’s crazy to be that. I just thought it would be something good to do, I didn’t plan it.”

Jones stayed inside the arena bowl for about 1 hour following the game, signing uncounted numbers of autographs and chatting with several Weber State people who meant something to him during his journey. Then he spent time reflecting about his personal growth.

ISAAC FISHER, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Weber State's Dillon Jones runs the offense against Eastern Washington on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Ogden.

Once upon a time (January 2021, to be exact), Jones was a freshman being pulled out of a road game early due to a few turnovers and getting into the wrong mental space. He played only 18 minutes on a two-game road trip after recording 25 minutes in the previous game, then sent and deleted a couple of frustrated tweets on Twitter.

His coaches have described him as a cerebral player who sees the game at an elite level and, at the time, he’d get into his own head if he made mistakes.

“He always wanted to get better and I saw like, he can actually do it, he can be the next person to go to the league out of here,” Cunningham said. “Seeing him progress after all these years and become the player he is, he deserves it. He worked for it. All the tears, the angriness, it’s because he cares so much and I respect him for that.”

Saturday, Verplancken described Jones as one of his best friends and motivators.

“He’s been so valuable because he’s always the first person when it goes bad to help me keep my head up,” Verplancken said. “And when it goes good, he’s the first one to keep me accountable. If I walk into practice and I’m not ready, he’s like ‘Steve don’t want to be here, Steve don’t want to guard.’

“So having that friendship meant the world to me. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around.”

The mental battle was necessary for Jones to start becoming an elite on-court player.

“Physically, I’ve always been OK, in a sense. But that was the last part of my growth and once I was able to conquer that, the rest was kind of history, honestly,” Jones said. “Those moments made me. I got benched a couple times as a freshman but I was still a rotation player. I think that’s a credit to my coaches for not bending the line but knowing my growth is more important in that area.

“If they just let me … do whatever I want to do, or after I’m having one of those times, just let me go … who knows how this conversation is going right now. The body of work I’ve put together, who knows? So that was a big part of it.”

That led Jones to set and tie his career highs multiple times this season. In the 2023-24 campaign, he has three 30-point games, four nine-assist games and his 23 rebounds Thursday set a career-high and tied the most ever pulled down in the Dee Events Center.

“The only thing that was holding me back was me,” Jones said. “It’s one thing to know about those things holding you back and another thing to actually look in the mirror, change it and accomplish it … once you get it one time, it becomes addicting and you just want it more, and you see what’s working and what’s not working for you.

“Mentally, that’s where the war is won. That’s where it starts and ends, if we’re being honest,” he continued. “It’s always been an issue for me but now I’ve got things built up to where I can notice those things, check myself, listen to people when they check me. And now that I’ve … got over that hump, I think we see what the benefits (are).”

Those benefits have lifted Jones into rarified air, sometimes with the company of just himself.

In Weber State’s record book for career totals, he’ll finish as No. 5 in scoring, No. 1 in steals and No. 2 in assists. He’s currently No. 3 in rebounding but needs 21 more rebounds to take over No. 2 in both WSU and Big Sky history. He’s also second at WSU in made free throws, with Damian Lillard 33 makes away.

No player in Big Sky men’s basketball history (60 prior seasons) has ever led the conference in points, rebounds and assists per game in one season; with Monday’s regular-season finale and the conference tournament ahead, he currently holds those top spots with averages of 20.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

He’s the only player in Big Sky men’s history with at least 1,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 150 steals, but his totals now all eclipse 1,700, 1,100, 400 and 200.

He’s also six rebounds and six assists away from becoming the first player in Division I men’s basketball to total 600 points, 300 rebounds, 160 assists and 50 steals in one season since at least 1992-93, which is as far back as Sports Reference’s play index goes.

But the work isn’t done yet. Monday gives Weber State a chance to claim the No. 2 seed for the Big Sky tournament, which would be WSU’s highest seed since being No. 1 in 2016. And then it’s on to the conference tournament; in 2021, Jones saw his 17-5 team lose in the quarterfinals, then twice the Wildcats lost heartbreakers in the semifinals.

“You just take each game as its own game, don’t overlook anybody and approach it the same way,” Jones said. “You just stay in the moment … we can learn from those moments.”


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