A NEW AND IMPROVED DONTAE
By Gene Phelps
Three years ago this month, Dontae’ Jones was a high school dropout working in a chicken restaurant in his hometown of Nashville.
Today, Jones returns to the “Music City” as one of the stars on Mississippi State’s basketball team.
“It’s going to be fun going back home,” said Jones, a 6-foot-7 small forward who’ll start in tonight’s 7:30 Southeastern Conference game against Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym. “A lot of people there have only heard things about me. Hopefully, I’ll play good.”
Jones is playing quite well for the Western Division-leading Bulldogs, having averaged 17.4 points per game in his last nine outings. His top games were against Auburn (22 points, 13 rebounds) and Saturday against Alabama (20 points, 10 rebounds).
After a sluggish start, the former junior college player of the year from Northeast Mississippi Community College is playing like he was projected to in the preseason. He is currently 17th in the SEC in scoring (13.7 ppg) and 14th in rebounding (6.4).
“I’ve taken the negatives and the positives and tried to work with them,” he said. “I’ve tried to improve on everything I needed to improve on. I’m getting used to everything going on on this level, getting into shape, getting used to the guys around me.
“When I was at Northeast it was like my team. Now I’ve got four guys around me.”
Jones’ progress has been pleasing to his head coach, Richard Williams.
“He has learned how to play within the framework of the other players,” Williams said. “That’s where Dontae’ has made his greatest improvement, learning how to play a team game and still using his individual talents. He is improving. He is concentrating much better on defense. He is a much better defender than he was at the beginning of the season.
“He could still be a better rebounder because of his foot quickness, jumping ability and his anticipation. As his career goes on, he could become one of the great offensive rebounders here.”
Jones has also improved his shot selection. Williams likes for his players to let the ball go through the first time they get it. On the second catch they are free to play. The idea is to get better ball movement.
“Dontae’ has a great amount of ability and he knows he has the freedom to create a shot,” Williams said. “He just doesn’t have the freedom to create a shot the first time he touches it (smile).”
Jones is rated 10th in the SEC in field goal percentage, hitting 126 of 274 shots for 46 percent.
Coming back home
Jones is obviously excited about his return to Nashville, where he made a name for himself on the AAU and midnight league courts after dropping out of high school. The Mississippi State media guide doesn’t list his statistics from Stratford High School because he didn’t have any.
Two games into his junior year he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He dropped out of school before playing a game his senior season.
“The injury took all the air out of my balloon,” he said. “I lost all confidence in myself. I didn’t do my schoolwork because I couldn’t play ball.”
Jones went to work cleaning and preparing chickens at a restaurant where his mother is a supervisor instead of going to school. He spent the remainder of his free time on the basketball court.
“All I could think about was playing basketball,” he said. “I played all the rec league ball that I could. I knew if I could get my act together, I could play (college) somewhere.”
An AAU teammate, Matt Coble, helped open the door for Jones. He is the one who told Northeast coach Mike Lewis about him.
“I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for Northeast,” he said. “A young black man without an education has very few options. In the city you don’t have a lot of choices. My younger brothers (two) and sister looked up to me. I knew when they saw that I’d dropped out it would be easy for them to follow in my footsteps.”
Jones’ family, including mother Lafonda Harris and father John Jones, will be in the stands today to see him play for the first time.
“It’s been tough on my mom and dad,” he said. “We don’t have a lot, but I’m proud of the things we do have. Nothing’s ever been given to us, but we always had the things we needed. As for the things you want, well, you just learn to want.”
Jones is hoping a stellar career at State will pave the way for a trip to the NBA. Then he’ll have to “want” no more.
“I want to some day be able to take care of my family,” he said.
Jones an easy target
Jones put together two standout seasons on the court at Northeast, averaging 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. It was in the classroom where Jones failed to shine. His 36-hour crash course in summer school to become eligible at State raised a few eyebrows, but Jones promises everything was above board.
Jones’ academic background makes him a favorite target of opposing fans. At one arena this season, the student section was cheering, “Hooked on Phonics” every time Jones went to the free throw line.
“I hear it,” he said, then smiled. “My background put me in the situation. But I can’t worry about what people say about me. I try instead to feed off all the negative remarks.”
Sometimes he gets a little too carried away when feeding off the negative remarks from fans, says teammate Marcus Bullard.
“At Ole Miss, people were talking about his academics,” Bullard said. “He hit a shot and looks right at them. When he does something like that I have to tell him, ‘Tae’, calm down. Let your actions do the talking.”’
An educational psychology major, Jones says he’s still not fond of school work. But he says he’s going to class regularly. He only cut three classes last fall and passed all of his course work.
“I feel good about my academics,” he said. “After this semester, I’ll only need another year and a summer session to graduate.”
That would sure beat cleaning chickens.