SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Former NBA player Damon Jones put LeBron James through pregame shooting workouts during last year’s NBA Finals. Months later, Jones is now working out NBA Development League players as an assistant coach with the Canton Charge.
After initially taking a minor-league route to the NBA as a player, Jones is now taking the D-League route in hopes of moving up the coaching ladder.
“We’re not far away from each other. Canton is 45 minutes away from Cleveland,” Jones said of James. “He’s supportive. He knows the basketball mind I have, and he’s confident I can get the job done. He says, ‘Hey, just go down there and do your thing.’ “
Jones and James became close friends when both were with the Cavaliers from 2005-08. Jones’ 11-year NBA career with 10 teams ended after playing with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2008-09 season. Jones remained close with James after his NBA days concluded.
Upon James’ return to Cleveland in 2014, he helped a retired Jones land a job as his personal shooting coach, while aiding other Cavs players from time to time as well.
“He’s been very instrumental,” Jones said of his coaching career. “He was the reason why I got the opportunity last [season]. He felt comfortable in me helping him in any way possible. It gave me an avenue to get back in the game. Not only right now, but even when I played we had a great relationship and he did a lot of things for my career. Without him, I don’t know if the opportunities I’m receiving right now would be received.”
The Charge, the Cavaliers’ D-League affiliate, had an assistant coach opening on head coach Jordi Fernandez’s staff this season, and Jones joined the team on a one-year deal.
“What I was doing last season, I was focused on helping the guys with shooting and things of that nature,” Jones said. “I felt good about that and worked really hard on it. The guys were successful doing it. But I just feel like I have a little bit more that I have to give to the game. The opportunity came and here I am.”
Jones is vocal on Canton’s bench, makes game plans on opposing teams, calls substitutions and plays, works with guards off the court and also provides comic relief when needed. While the former sharpshooting combo guard’s 657 career NBA games gain instant respect from players, he is also respecting the opportunity to improve his coaching.
“X's, O’s and stuff, once you’ve been in an NBA huddle or locker room, you’ve kind of picked those things up along the way. I’ve been with a lot of coaches and studied them and watched how they interact and do things. The game management part is probably what I have to say is something I’m not all the way good at right now,” Jones said.
Canton rookie guard Quinn Cook, who went undrafted out of Duke last year, says Jones has already had a strong impact on him.
“He has helped me with being a leader, first, and staying consistent,” Cook said. “He shows me how to prepare the day before games and the work I need to put in to separate myself. He wasn’t [on the] red carpet going to the NBA, went undrafted. That’s what I want to be. I want to look back 20 years from now with a 12-year NBA career.”
Jones entered the 1997 NBA draft after averaging 16.4 points and 4.9 assists in his junior season at the University of Houston. After going undrafted, he played in the minors the next two seasons for the IBA’s Black Hills Posse, the USBL’s Jacksonville Barracudas and the then-CBA Idaho Stampede. He jumped around the NBA with New Jersey, Boston, Golden State and Dallas from 1998-2000 before another minor league stint with the USBL’s Gulf Coast franchise. His NBA career stabilized over the next nine seasons, culminating with his three-season run with James and the Cavs. After the NBA, he had stints in Italy, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and with Reno of the D-League before retiring from playing in 2012.
“I remember the bus rides, the competition and for the most part trying to get out there,” said Jones of his time in the minors. “Finally being able to get to the top and get out of there was the best part of it all. It was a learning experience, leaving college early and not getting drafted. But having an opportunity to play in the [minors] was a good and humbling experience.
“It helped me get through the first five or six years of my tenure in the NBA because I moved around a lot and always was on a [non-guaranteed deal]. It helped me stay focused.”
Jones has aspirations of being a D-League, college and NBA head coach one day, but is enjoying his growth in Canton. And of course, he’s is also keeping a close eye on James.
“LeBron’s a gamer. A lot of people are frustrated or disappointed that he is not shooting the basketball better [28.8 percent from 3-point range]. But I am not worried about that with him. His game is not predicated on just shooting,” Jones said. “He does a lot of great things that don’t show up in the box score. So I’m never worried about him. He can shoot whatever percentage from the 3-point line or outside the paint. His effect on the game is way bigger than shooting.”
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