October 11, 2010
As the rest of his Arizona teammates prepared to celebrate New Year's eve in Los Angeles last year, backup point guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones was on the phone with his mom trying futilely to choke back tears.
The homesick Harlem native's bold decision to attend college all the way across the country no longer seemed like the right choice anymore. Not only was he struggling to make an impact on the court or mesh with teammates and coaches in the locker room, his poor attitude after logging just nine minutes that afternoon in a loss to USC had also led him to be suspended for Arizona's next game at UCLA.
"When the ball dropped, I was still on the phone with him because he wanted to come home so bad," Jones' mother, Jeneen Fuller, said. "He was crying. He was miserable. He just wanted to come home. I was actually scared for a minute because I really thought that was what he was going to do."
That Jones opted to persevere in Tucson rather than return home to New York is one of the biggest reasons Arizona expects to return to the NCAA tournament next March after failing to earn a bid for the first time in a quarter century last season. Jones will likely inherit the starting point guard job at a school known for producing stars at that position, a promotion the sophomore has earned by finishing last season with a flourish and then working hard this summer to get stronger and leaner.
The turning point for Jones last winter was a series of conversations with his mother and Arizona coach Sean Miller immediately following his one-game suspension.
Miller promised his role on the team would increase if he ran the offense, involved his teammates and demonstrated smarter shot selection instead of always hunting for scoring opportunities each time he stepped on the court. And Fuller encouraged him to remain patient and give himself time get comfortable at Arizona rather than making the rash decision to return home only two months into his freshman season.
"I had to sit down with my family and sit down with my coach and do a little bit of soul-searching," Jones recalled. "I realized that I could be a special player and one day a pro, but at the same time I have to put in the work and I have to listen to what the coaches say and do what's expected of me. After that conversation with coach, I felt like he believed in me and I felt like he trusted me. Having trust and belief from your coaches, it gives you an extra boost."
It's easy to understand why Jones felt pressure to prove he was NBA-ready as a freshman when you consider what he endured as a child. His stepfather, Clarence Sims, was shot and killed near his house when Jones was eight years old, a tragedy that brought him closer to his mom and younger sister and motivated him to push himself in basketball so he can one day provide for them.
Were it not for the sudden resignation of USC coach Tim Floyd in the wake of the O.J. Mayo scandal, Jones would probably be fighting to achieve his dreams as a Trojan right now instead of a Wildcat. Jones backed out of his letter of intent with USC and finally signed with Arizona in June 2009, drawn to Tucson by the school's history of developing top point guards and the presence of godfather Emmanuel "Book" Richardson on Miller's staff.
Despite scoring almost 10 points a game his final 11 games as a freshman and banking in a memorable buzzer-beating jumper at Stanford, Jones entered the offseason determined to remake his body so he'd be equipped to handle a heavier workload as a starter this season. He swore off snacks and fast food, stopped eating late-night meals and ran daily at a track near his home in the New York humidity this summer, helping him shed a few pounds and get down to about six percent body fat.
"When he first got here, he was a little overweight and his body fat was high, but he doesn't even look like the same person anymore," teammate Derrick Williams said. "He's really trying to be a better point guard this year and that starts with his conditioning."
How Jones progresses as a distributor and a leader next season will be one of the determining factors to Arizona's quest to return to the NCAA tournament. Point guard Nic Wise is the only key loss from last year for an Arizona program looking to build around a promising group of sophomores that includes Jones, all-conference forward Derrick Williams and wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.
Unlike last season when Jones was Wise's understudy at point guard until late in the season, he'll almost certainly be in Arizona's starting lineup from the outset as a sophomore. That means it will probably be Fuller and not her son who is crying on Nov. 14 when she hears Jones' name introduced prior to the season opener against Idaho State.
"They call me a water head because I cry all the time, and I'm sure I'll be crying again that night," Fuller said. "It's just an overwhelming feeling to come from where we come from and to see where he's gone. As a mom, it's just overwhelming for me and I couldn't be prouder."