Who Is Derrick Jones Jr.?

Feb 18 2017
Photo by
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Derrick Jones Jr.
Phoenix Suns
Feb 18 2017

Almost every day this month, I had to answer the same question.

And look, yeah, I understand the curiosity.

“I don’t know yet,” I kept saying. Over and over.

Which was true. But the same question just kept coming at me and I could only delay so long. I knew the curiosity was coming from a good place, but I’m only 20. It just felt like … a lot of pressure.

Finally, this week, I knew I couldn’t put off my answer any longer.

On Tuesday night after practice I looked across the dining room table at my girlfriend, and she asked me again — the same question she’d been asking for the previous two weeks.

“What are you gonna cook for us on Valentine’s Day?” she asked.

I disappeared into the kitchen and an hour later she got her answer: homemade chicken Alfredo pasta. The smile on her face said it all. I think I really nailed it.

Oh what … you thought I was going to tell you which dunks I’m gonna do at the dunk contest?

You’re going to have to wait to find out about that. All I will guarantee is: I’m going to try my best to make it spectacular. I won’t take this chance for granted.

No one believed I could dunk.

No one believed me for the longest time.

My sixth grade teammates didn’t believe me. The kids at the park didn’t believe me. Even my own brother — who was six years older, and taller and stronger — didn’t believe me.

So the first time I dunked, I really just wanted to do one thing … shut my brother up.

It was the summer before seventh grade. I was still a little bit under six feet tall, a skinny kid who hadn’t filled out yet. Around the corner from our parents’ house, there was a blacktop court that my brother and I went to every day. The hoop was one of those streetball baskets with a metal chain for a net and a double rim. To this day, I think the rim was a couple inches higher than 10 feet, but who knows?

I had been trying to throw one down all summer. I would tell anyone who would listen how I was gonna do it soon. But no one wants to hear your dunk stories — they just want to see you do it. It’s almost like if no one sees it … it doesn’t happen.

I’ll never forget that day at the park. I went up off one leg. It was a simple one-hander. I barely got over the rim, but it went in. When I came down, the hoop was still rattling. I felt like I was in heaven.

My brother didn’t have much to say. He just bobbed his head, nodding at me.


Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Growing up, I had this friend who was obsessed with video cameras and making creative films. This was still a couple of years before I started getting really into YouTube and uploading my own dunk videos.

One day when I was a freshman in high school, a dude approached me and said his name was Jaime. He was couple of years older than me and he had all kinds of creative ideas for videos. We got along and we ended up coming up with a concept for a short documentary. It was a pretty simple concept: footage of me playing basketball, working out and practicing dunks combined with my thoughts about my future. The final product was a six-minute video we called The Journey.

We had big plans for The Journey — we were going to make multiple episodes, like a real-time documentary that followed my high school career to college and beyond. But when our classmates and friends saw the first video, so many people wanted Jaime to make a Journey video for them, too, that Jaime got too busy with all his new clients and we only ever made that one episode.

It’s only been three weeks since I got invited to the dunk contest at NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans. I’ve never done so many media interviews in my life. Everyone’s been supercool.

It’s been a lot of fun hearing people ask, “So … who is Derrick Jones Jr.?”

It’s also weird. Do you know how wild that question is?

That’s not a question I usually get. Nobody had ever really been very interested in who I was before.

Which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about The Journey recently. This week leading up to All-Star weekend, I caught myself wishing Jaime and I would’ve kept on making those videos.

I would’ve made a whole episode about my senior year of high school, when I got passed over for the McDonald’s All-American team.

I would’ve made an episode about being overlooked by major college basketball programs. They said I was too skinny. They said I didn’t have an outside shot. They said I was “just a dunker.”

I would’ve made another episode about my freshman year at UNLV, when the NCAA declared me ineligible after the ACT board threw out my test score, which meant I couldn’t finish my freshman season. 

I would’ve made an episode about the NBA draft party my parents threw for me last June. Sixty picks and two rounds later, my parents were cleaning up the food and the balloons and I was still undrafted.

I would’ve made an episode about how, after going undrafted, I lost my best chance at impressing NBA teams when I got injured the week before Summer League began.

And I would’ve made another episode about finally making the Suns roster this year — and then getting sent down to the D-League right away.

In other words, it would’ve been cool to have a record of all the times the world told me, “I don’t believe in you.”

I’ll never forget what that doubt feels like.


John W. Mcdonough/SI/Getty Images

I was three years old in 2000, when the greatest dunk contest of all time took place. Obviously I missed it live, but I’ve watched it on YouTube hundreds of times.

That was the dunk contest. The one to end all others.

The Vince Carter show.

Let me refresh your memory. Vince made four dunks in all. He started with a 360, one-handed helicopter dunk. For his second dunk, he came from the baseline and took off with his back to the rim, spinning around to face the basket before he threw it down.

His third dunk is the one that will go down in history: the bounce pass from Tracy McGrady that Vince put through his legs. You probably remember the image of Vince pointing to the sky after that one.

I used to do the same pointing gesture when I first learned to dunk. Actually, I feel like every kid who’s ever dunked has done it. It’s like giving a little respect to the basketball gods.

But a lot of people forget Vince’s fourth and last dunk. It was his simplest one, but it’s my favorite dunk from that year.

It’s the one where he hangs from the rim by his elbow.

What I’ve always loved about that dunk was that he caught everyone off guard with it. It was a one-hander. Basic approach. And for a second, you’re watching and you’re thinking, Wait, what was special about that?

And then Vince stays up there, hanging from the rim … and he’s dangling by his elbow. And then you realize how high he just jumped. And then you realize that you’ve never seen anyone do that before. You never believed you’d see anyone who could get up that high.

That’s the dunk I was thinking about the day I dunked for the first time in the park. I knew I needed to imagine the rim was 12 feet tall. I tried to get up so high that I could hang from my elbow.

I dunked it, but I just barely got to the rim. I had work to do.


Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

We traveled to Memphis about a week ago to play the Grizzlies. It was only a few days after it had been announced that I would be competing in the dunk contest.

Everyone had advice for me. I’m really appreciative of all the tips and all the love. But it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. You can’t imagine all the people who were texting me, DMing me, calling me — some guy I don’t even know shouted at me from across the street outside our team hotel, even —  with advice on how to win the dunk contest. It’s hard enough to adjust to the NBA schedule while keeping my spot on the roster — let alone think about what I’m going to do in the dunk contest.

So it was warmups in Memphis and I was shooting around, and someone came up to me.


I turned around. It was a guy I’d never met before.

He had a really nice suit on. I noticed that right away. Great smile. We were just about the same height, too.

“I’m not gonna give you any advice,” he said, “except that you should just be creative about it.”

I was just in complete awe to be talking to him. I don’t think I even responded. We just shook hands … and I smiled and that was it.

Then Vince Carter walked back toward the Grizzlies bench. A couple of seconds later he stopped to say one more thing to me.

“Think about the things no one has done,” he said.

Alright, Vince. If you say so.

Derrick Jones Jr.
Phoenix Suns