Thursday, October 4, 2012
Seth Jones is ready for spotlight
By Craig Custance ESPN.com
With a computer plugged into a 70-inch television, Amy Jones is closely watching her son's transition to junior hockey in Portland, Ore., as it's streamed into her Texas home. Just like she keeps a close eye on everything Seth Jones does. What he posts on Twitter. What he posts on Facebook. The pictures he adds to Instagram.
Seth calls it creeping when she gives a like to nearly every social media post he makes from across the country. Sympathetic moms and dads might call it good parenting.
When you observe your child so closely, you notice things others may not. During Jones' first few games in the Western Hockey League, that has been the case for Amy.
She sees small mistakes her son hasn't made in the past. Nothing major, nothing that would alarm a scouting community that unanimously raves about Jones' NHL potential as a franchise defenseman and his future as America's next hockey star.
Maybe just stuff a mom would pick up.
"He said, 'I know. It's new. I have to get used to things. I have to calm down,'" Amy said.
Seth Jones is considered by most to be one of two prospects vying to be the top pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
In that conversation with his mom, Jones expressed the strangeness that comes with being one of two players expected to be the first pick in the 2013 draft. Getting used to every eye focused on each pass made, each puck shot. Even his demeanor while sitting on the bench waiting for the next shift.
"I don't think that he's not comfortable. I just think he wants to prove himself," Amy Jones said.
By now, you might know Seth's backstory. How he's the son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones. How he chose hockey over basketball, in part because he witnessed the Colorado Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup from a seat right on the glass, an impressionable 6-year-old soaking in the scene as Ray Bourque raised the silver trophy for the first time. Those are moments that can change the entire direction of a young athlete's dreams. And a country's international hockey program.
Now, with the NHL lockout in full effect and the sport's spotlight turning to anywhere hockey is being played, Jones is squarely in the crosshairs of teams, scouts, fans and the hockey community. There might not be an 18-year-old better prepared for the attention that will accompany the coming showdown between Jones and Nathan MacKinnon -- the two players vying to become the No. 1 overall pick in June.
"I am ready. It's exciting," Jones told ESPN The Magazine on Saturday. "It puts a smile on my face every time someone says something like that. Staying humble and working every day, I try to do this racehorse right now with me and Nate. He's going to have a great year and I'm going to try and counterpoint it."
Both are represented by CAA's Pat Brisson, the agent for four of the past seven No. 1 overall picks. One of those players was Sidney Crosby, hockey's focus when the NHL last locked out its players.
Each summer, Brisson brings his draft eligible players to a camp in California where they do media training, learn about nutrition and are prepared for everything they'll face as professional hockey players. This summer, Jones and MacKinnon also worked with Crosby and a few others on-ice. Because Crosby deftly handled the attention as the next big star during the last lockout, he's better equipped than anyone to hand down advice to Jones.
"When you watch Sidney Crosby, who has accomplished so much and who has managed the media and the pressure at another level. Skating two or three days with him helps too," Brisson said. "[Seth's] biggest quality is that he absorbs. He's observant. He's not quick to judgment."
There's no greater example of his measured decision-making than how Jones handled his choice last May to play in the WHL rather than attend college at North Dakota. The rivalry between college and junior hockey is as intense as anything on the ice, yet Jones is one of the rare players caught in the middle who emerged to praise from both sides.
It's a testament to his patience that he decided not to commit to a college or junior program until he weighed all the information and finalized his choice.
"The other thing I thought he did, he didn't waste a lot of people's time," said Danton Cole, his coach at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. "He was very up front with everything. Narrowed things down to places he was going to play. He handled things real professionally and did a great job with it. That's his personality."
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Fans, scouts and media in Buffalo this past weekend got a taste of that professionalism and composure when Jones arrived to play in the inaugural All-American Prospect Game as the headlining act.
He left a Friday night WHL game in Portland before the final buzzer to catch the first leg of his flight to Buffalo. He took a redeye to Atlanta, then flew from Georgia to upstate New York to satisfy demands for his time on Saturday morning.
Working on one hour's worth of airplane sleep, there was no sign of frustration or annoyance. If he was tempted to roll his eyes when asked about his NBA-playing father once again or why he chose hockey over basketball, he never showed it.
One tip he received from his dad prepared him for these moments. Over the long course of a professional athlete's career, he's going to get asked the same questions over and over. Find an answer, and stick with it.
For someone with so many storylines unique to hockey -- an African-American Texas native whose dad played in the NBA -- he's already good at finding the right answers. And then patiently repeating them.
"It's part of it. It's part of having a dad who played a professional sport and the completely opposite sport," he said. "I don't blame you guys, I'd be doing the same thing."
Jones' calm and level-headed demeanor is only important because it translates to his game on the ice. At 6-foot-3, he has every physical tool necessary to be a dominant NHL defenseman. He's coachable and teammates love the way he assesses the game in front of him, usually making a perfect first pass. He has a low-key, efficient style he patterns after future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. As he gains experience and fills out physically, his ability to influence a game will also grow.
He'd like to improve on his ability to consistently get shots through traffic, but even identifying that weakness endears him to his coaches, such as Phil Housley, who will be behind the bench for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. After missing last year's tournament with a shoulder injury, Jones will now be shouldering the Americans' gold-medal hopes this year.
"Seth Jones is a guy who has very good self-assessment skills and has a good balance to him where he doesn't get too high and doesn't get too low," Housley said. "He's always testing and measuring himself but does it in a great team setting. I think he's well prepared for everything that is going to come up."