When the Dallas Mavericks signed Derrick Jones Jr. in the eleventh hour of free agency, the general reaction among the fanbase ranged from ambivalence to delighted optimism. While Jones Jr. hasn’t had a very accomplished or decorated career, his athletic prowess and relative youth made him a desirable, low-cost flyer for a team like the Mavericks. Watch any highlight tape and you’ll witness the man nicknamed “Airplane Mode” throw down gravity-defying dunks and get up for emphatic, impossible blocked shots. Seeing stuff like that understandably gets fans excited.
The actual body of work for Jones Jr. at the professional level is much less impressive. He’s only 26 years of age, but this will be his eighth NBA season. Through his first seven years, Jones Jr. sports averages of 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, .5 assists, and 1.3 stocks (steals + blocks) per game on .508/.304/.705 shooting splits. The basic stats don’t pop off the page. Jones Jr.’s calling card is defense, and while he’s regarded as a very effective player on that end of the floor, the bad offense often cancels his impact out.
The Mavericks have reportedly coveted Jones Jr. for years. Maybe they think they can use his athleticism and set of tools to unlock something that other teams haven’t quite been able to yet. For Jones Jr., the time has come to show the NBA that he has another level in him. In a lot of ways, Jones Jr. has plateaued as a player. You could even make the argument that he’s gone backward since his career-best 2019-2020 season in Miami. But in Dallas, there’s an opportunity for Jones Jr. to rebuild his value while contributing to winning basketball for this year’s Mavericks.
How are the Mavericks going to use Derrick Jones Jr.? It’s easy to wonder how many minutes he’ll play or if he’ll crack the main rotation. But I’m curious as to how Dallas will deploy his skillset. On defense, we know that he’ll bring versatility. He can guard the other team’s best perimeter player and hold his own against leaner bigs, too. But what will his role on offense be? Jones Jr. is 6’6” with a 7’0” wingspan. He has the height of a wing, but the reach and ability of a modern big. Jones Jr. is a bad shooter and a negative floor spacer. It wouldn’t make sense to just stick him in the corner on offense. And his best offensive skill is actually his productiveness as a screen setter and roll man. Last season, Jones Jr. generated 1.49 points per possession as a roll man, good for the 94th percentile in the NBA. This was one spot above noted roll-god Dwight Powell. Looking at these numbers, it’s easy to envision a Luka Doncic and DJJ pick-and-roll feeding families, as the kids say. Will the Mavericks unleash Jones Jr. at the five and let him go crazy setting ball screens? The roster already has so many mediocre bigs fighting for minutes. It will be interesting to see how DJJ fits into that mess.
Best Case Scenario
In a perfect world, the Mavericks figure out exactly how to maximize Jones Jr.’s strengths and cover up his weaknesses. He excels in lineups with guys like Maxi Kleber and Grant Williams and is an effective pick-and-roll partner for Doncic and other Maverick guards. In an even more ideal scenario, the “Luka bump” leads to an uptick in Jones Jr.’s three-point shooting, and he turns in a league-average season from distance by cashing in on way more wide-open attempts. His strong defense contributes toward a meaningful revolution on that end for the Mavericks and Jones Jr. becomes a valuable rotation piece.
Worst Case Scenario
The Mavericks and Jones Jr. can’t make the offensive fit work. They try to stick him in the corner and don’t take full advantage of his screen-setting skills. The shooting continues to be bad and his offensive nothingness negates his defensive contributions. He falls to the fringes of the rotation and only plays in garbage time. After the season, Jones Jr. has to hope that he can eke out another minimum deal from a team still enamored with his athleticism.
In his media day press conference, Jones Jr. asserted that he “can be one of the top defenders on the team,” while showcasing the ability to “knock down shots and create different opportunities [by] crashing the glass, cutting into the lane, and going against closeouts.” If Jones Jr. is able to effectively do these things for Dallas, his tenure here will be a success. Jones Jr. also touched on using his quickness to be an effective roll man; to me, this is the most important factor in determining just how dynamic he can be for this team. Taking a low-risk chance on a young, athletic wing + big hybrid is good business for Dallas. If the coaching staff gets creative with how to take advantage of his unique offensive profile, Derrick Jones Jr. will be one of the best value signings of the offseason.