Jonquel Jones journeys to the top
Clemson recruit arrives from Bahamas, transforms her game in coach's driveway
The moment that told Diane Richardson just what she had in Jonquel Jones came as a recipe of several seemingly simple but incongruent ingredients:
A pair of gloves.
A pair of scissors.
A driveway basketball court.
A basketball Jones.
It was late fall three years ago, and a chill already had settled in Ellicott City, Md., an affluent suburb in the Washington-Baltimore corridor. Though only recently arrived from the Bahamas, Jones already had settled into a routine of rushing through her schoolwork and spending most of the rest of the day on Richardson's basketball court. One day, Jones mentioned to Richardson's husband, Larry, that the outdoor hoops were putting a serious freeze in her hands.
Larry Richardson, a longtime baller himself, told Jones how, during his youth, he and his buddies would keep up their basketball through bitter winters by cutting the fingers off their gloves, thus maintaining some warmth while allowing fingertip control for dribbling and shooting.
A light went off in Jones' head. The Richardsons had just bought Jones some gloves and her first warm jacket during a trip to Walmart. But following through on digitless gloves would require a sacrifice on Jones' part. "You have to understand," she says in almost reverential tones, "Bahamians love Walmart." Plus she would never sever a single stitch without first seeking permission from "Coach Rich," Diane Richardson, her coach at Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.).
"When she asked about the gloves, that's when I knew there was something different about Jonquel," Richardson recalls. "I said, 'Let me put on some extra clothes and go work with this kid.' This is a kid that loves basketball. It's Jonquel's will and willingness to learn that put her where she is now."
Where Jonquel (pronounced Jon-qwell) Jones is, and will be, is rare enough. She is a nationally ranked prospect headed to a place, Clemson University, where a lot of nationally ranked prospects have not ventured in recent years. Plus, Jones made such a quantum leap during her senior season at Riverdale Baptist that there has been an ongoing discussion among the ESPN HoopGurlz staff about conducting an unprecedented reordering of its top 100 prospects in the 2012 class. At No. 36, as of the usual, final rankings set in the fall, Jones seems as many as 20 or more spots too low.
Even so, Jones just played in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American Game last weekend and Riverdale Baptist was good enough to have been ranked No. 6 in the POWERade Fab 50 and earn a spot in the National High School Invitational.
Where Jones came from is rarer still. People talk about a player "coming from nowhere," but what does that really mean anymore in a world that resides under an Internet-intensified magnifying glass? In Jones' case, "nowhere," with no disrespect intended, is the Bahamas, the tiny Caribbean island nation known almost exclusively as a destination for tourists and certainly not college recruiters, especially on the women's side. She is, in fact, thought to be just the third girls' basketball player from the Bahamas ever to earn a Division I scholarship straight out of high school.
Jones very easily could have remained in the Bahamas, facing a future that she now is hard-pressed to fathom. She got good marks in school and likes to think she would have gone on to college, but that may have been a pipe dream. Her family's assets were wiped out during Hurricane Andrew, which struck Jones' hometown, Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, in 1992 with Category 5 intensity, the most catastrophically powerful storm possible. Jones remembers the roof of her house "peeled off like the top of a can of tuna." She and her sister were with her mother, Ettamae, a social worker who was preparing for the hurricane at a nearby shelter for the elderly. When they returned, they saw, according to Jones, "fishes, alive and swimming around in our house." In recent years, the Jones family finances would be further stressed by the treatment of her father, Preston, for a brain tumor.
By some providence, Jones had come to know Yolett McPhee-McCuin, who not only is the first girl from the Bahamas to receive a Division I scholarship straight out of high school, but she also would become the assistant who recruited Jones to Clemson. McPhee-McCuin knew someone who knew Diane Richardson. And Richardson eventually would see something of her younger self in Jonquel Jones.
Growing up on the streets of Washington, D.C., Richardson describes herself as "not the greatest kid. Most of the kids I grew up with are now either dead or in jail. That's where I was headed." Sports -- first track, then basketball -- channeled her life in a different direction. She played basketball at Frostburg University in Maryland, where she met Larry, who played on the men's team. Richardson went on to earn a graduate degree, start and sell a successful investment firm and then start a security company, American Security, which she owns with her husband.
One of Richardson's former players at Riverdale Baptist, Jurelle Nairn, told her about Jones. Another native of the Bahamas, Nairn played at Riverdale one year as part of an exchange program, eventually played at North Carolina A&T and remains in the area. Basketball was floated as the connection for Jones to Riverdale Baptist, but there was no way to gauge the level of her abilities. It was Jones' personal story that struck a chord with Richardson. Jones has an irresistible star quality about her. She connects, looks people in the eye, and speaks quickly, as if in a verbal drag race, but with sincerity, respect and wit. Plus there was no questioning her hunger to succeed.
"This was more of a heart thing than a basketball thing," Richardson says. "They were such nice people, and their plight was so touching. Somebody gave me a chance when I was Jonquel's age. That's all she needed."
A similar notion resided in the head of McPhee-McCuin, who also saw some of her young self in Jones. The big difference was that McPhee-McCuin almost was preordained to use basketball to get off the island. Some of her earliest memories are of being in a gym, empty except for her and her father, Gladstone McPhee, both of them crying for half an hour because his team had lost in some championship game.
Gladstone McPhee, better known as Coach Moon, is one of the Bahamas' basketball pioneers, and later in his career he took up the charge of girls for his daughter. He started HOYTES (Helping Our Youth Through Education and Sports), and once took the girls' team for a humbling, eye-opening experience at the Deep South Classic, a prominent spring NCAA evaluation tournament. Later, a prominent club team, Boo Williams Summer League, run by one of Coach Moon's myriad U.S. basketball friends, lost a player and Williams called McPhee about his daughter. Back before 9/11 changed the entire travel landscape, McPhee-McCuin simply used the plane tickets prepurchased for the other player.
Looking for a guard in the fall, the coaching staff at Florida Atlantic remembered McPhee-McCuin and called her father to arrange a workout in the Bahamas. They offered her a scholarship on the spot.
"Do you want to do it?" she recalls her parents asking.
"Yeah I want to do it!" she replied.
And that was the extent of their due diligence. Not surprisingly, McPhee-McCuin later transferred and finished her career at Rhode Island.
Her U.S. experience amplified for McPhee-McCuin the shortcomings of girls' basketball in the Bahamas. Facilities are lacking, so most of it is played on outdoor courts. High school "seasons" are maybe about a dozen games. Competition and coaching are lacking. She saw something in Jones, who started attending her offseason basketball camps, so she'd push and crush the youngster in one-on-one games, taunting her with, "You ain't playing nobody."
The message: If you want to do something with yourself, get to the U.S.
Jones was pushing the limits of what she could get out of basketball in the Bahamas, and everyone around her knew it. She would have to hurry to get into the all-boys pickup games after school in the withering heat. There was no time to change, so she played in her parochial school uniform, skirt and all. Her mother would tell her, "You can't keep coming home with your clothes all dirty." But Jones refused to deviate; she wanted to play basketball and that was that. Jones and her parents financed a look-see visit with the Richardsons in Ellicott City by asking for and borrowing money from friends and neighbors.
The second time Jones went to Maryland, she was moving in with the Richardsons and, as she deplaned, was hit with a blast of chilly air that had leaked through a crack in the jetway. That was the first sign that her life had taken a dramatic turn. The second was Diane Richardson's admonition that they needed to hurry because they were late for practice at Riverdale Baptist. They raced from the airport directly to the gym, where Jones glimpsed her future teammates for the first time.
"Oh my goodness," Jones remembers thinking, "these girls are huge."
At the time, Jones was a scrawny 5-feet-8, and Richardson nicknamed her "spider" because "she was all arms and legs." While awaiting her growth spurts and the Americanization of her game, Jones spent her first season at Riverdale Baptist on junior varsity. Jones came up with a group that crackled with talent and potential -- among others, Kelila Atkinson would sign with Wake Forest and is ranked by ESPNU HoopGurlz as the No. 85 prospect in the 2012 class and fellow senior Jennie Simms would sign with West Virginia and is No. 87. Jones would burst past them all. As a senior, she averaged 15.7 points, 15.6 rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks.
Kids from the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) play with a toughness typical of densely populated urban areas in the Northeast, and Jones certainly fits right in. She has exploded to 6-3, growing from a size 9 shoe when she first landed on the Richardsons' doorstep to size 14. Her length and relentless approach makes her a rebounding machine and an almost goaltender-like minder of the net on defense. Jones is a good passer and has good handles and range out to the 3-point line, but also a polished approach on the inside boxes, with an ability to counter her drop-step move with a baby jump hook. Add to that diverse package the elements of confidence and responsibility Jones brought to her senior season, and you can understand why the coaching staff at Clemson is giddy with expectation.
Much of the basketball transformation took place on the court in the Richardson's driveway. When Jones first beheld it, she recalled the makeshift equivalent back home. Her father found an old rim on the side of the road, attached it to a piece of wood and affixed the backboard to a pole in front of the house. The light on top of the pole indulged Jones' late-night practice habits. Jones packed those habits and transported them with her to the U.S., prompting Larry Richardson to install a light on the family court to illuminate Jones' evening sessions. Eventually, Diane Richardson also would move a rocking chair nearby for days when she couldn't keep up with Jones but could continue to monitor workouts and call out instructions.
Most mornings, when the echoes of a bouncing basketball shatters the halcyon moments of post-dawn, Richardson will register the event, turn around and go back to sleep. "I'm not a morning person," she says. But Jones is, and she typically puts up 500 shots, sometimes 1,000, before breakfast. "You never have to tell her to go to the gym," McPhee-McCuin says. "This is what she does." The first time it snowed, Richardson says Jones was out almost immediately with the snow blower and shovel.
"When you are coming from so far behind, you have to work so hard just to get to zero," Richardson says, trying to make sense of Jones' work ethic. "Once you pass zero, you find yourself passing folks. But in her mind, she's still working from behind, so she just keeps going."
Richardson says Jones' massive appetite for improvement has awakened her as a coach. She constantly is challenged, she says, to find new ways of pushing Jones as a player. There's an element of irony to that, especially considering that Richardson's prodigy resides under the same roof. Though she and Larry are steeped in basketball, none of their children (Dana, 27; Donnie, 22, and Michael, 14) play the game. "My sons can't even dribble a basketball," Richardson says in mock horror. In a lot of ways, Jones is the prodigal hoops daughter.
Those wheels have been twisting around in the head of Jonquel Jones lately. She's been thinking about where she'll go during breaks and holidays at Clemson. She played back home in Freeport with Riverdale Baptist, and all the attention she attracted felt a little strange. That won't detour her from going back; after all, her nieces and nephews seem to be growing up way too fast. But she also reserves the right to revisit the place where she found herself. So Jones put the Richardsons on notice.
"Don't give away my room!" Jones has demanded.
Diane Richardson had been thinking about a new workout room. But things have changed, massively, and those plans have been placed on hold, perhaps indefinitely.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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