The two players were at the G League Elite Camp in Chicago, hoping to impress NBA scouts. Smith was coming off a season in which he started every game at point guard for Michigan basketball after transferring from Columbia last spring.
Jones, meanwhile, had decided earlier this offseason that he would transfer from Coastal Carolina to Michigan while still partaking in the NBA draft process.
When the two crossed paths in Chicago, Smith had a simple message for Jones.
“(Smith) just told me to come in and do what I do best,” Jones said Friday. “Don’t try to do too much. Just be vocal, be a leader, just be able to control the offense, understanding that there are going to be situations where I have lows and highs, just being that guy that everybody can lean on.”
One year after coach Juwan Howard and Michigan struck gold with Smith, a high-scoring point guard who transitioned into an elite facilitator for one of the nation's top offenses, the Wolverines are hoping to have another transfer success story with Jones.
The Sun Belt Player of the Year last season, Jones averaged 19.3 points per game at Coastal Carolina, a performance impressive enough to warrant heavy attention when Jones entered the transfer portal earlier this offseason.
“When I first got into the portal, the first time I announced it, I had like 20 coaches call me within five minutes,” Jones recalled. “It was crazy. I had to put my phone on do not disturb a lot of times, just have everybody go through my parents.”
How did the Wolverines differentiate themselves? First, Jones says, the entire coaching staff — including director of player personnel Jay Smith — made an effort to talk to him. Howard also “built a great relationship” with Jones' parents.
Jones was impressed by the NBA experience of Howard and assistant coach Howard Eisley, who instructs guards. He also liked Ann Arbor, based on the research he did about the city and campus.
Jones was sold on Michigan, which is why he committed to the program less than two weeks after entering the portal. At the same time, he kept his name in the draft and went through the entire process. (He had until Wednesday to withdraw and announced he would return Monday.)
Jones says he “heard a lot of great things” from NBA personnel. But in the end, the appeal of returning to college basketball and improving his stock with a big year at Michigan — where he'll face a sizable step up in competition — was too much to pass up.
“I was close to staying in, but I gave Juwan Howard my word that I would come back,” Jones said. “I’m a man of my word, so I stuck to that. A lot of scouts told me I would be an NBA guy this year or next year.
“There wasn’t any need to rush. If I went to Michigan, the only thing I can do is help my stock. Coming back, playing with a great group of guys, just trying to win a national championship, man. That sounded like a no-brainer to me.”
Like Smith did, Jones faces a host of questions surrounding his ability to adjust to his new team. Can he distribute? Can he play off the ball? Can he score efficiently against longer, more athletic defenders? How well will he shoot from 3-point range?
“I just want to show that at the end of the day, basketball is basketball,” Jones said. “I don’t think it would be that much different. I understand that there will be more talent and probably more athletic guys, but I just dealt with that in Chicago and also at the Sacramento Kings workout. It isn’t anything I haven’t been through before.
“Also, at Coastal, we played against high-major guys like West Virginia, Baylor and Utah, so I feel like it won’t be much of an (adjustment) for me.”
Jones says he's willing to do “whatever is best and needed for the team” and believes in his scoring and passing ability. But he seems most interested in providing the intangibles.
“I just want to show I can control the team, lead the team, that’s the big thing for me,” Jones said. “That’s the question scouts had about my game: Can I lead the team, can I control the game? That’s the main thing I’m focused on. I know everything else will take care of itself. I’ve got a great group of guys that believe in me. They’re going to make it very easy for me.”
Jones arrived in Ann Arbor four days ago and is getting to know his new teammates. There will be plenty of acclimation before the season begins. But Michigan's latest transfer addition already seems to be fitting in.
“Off the court, the chemistry is amazing,” Jones said. “I just got here and I feel like I’ve been on these guys for a long time. Every time you step in the locker room, it’s lots of smiles, laughs, everybody’s loud, people singing.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: DeVante' Jones may be Michigan basketball's next home run transfer