Is Jonquel Jones Ready to Be the Face of the WNBA?

The league's first Bahamian has learned a lot in recent months, from who she is as a person to the fragility of life in her homeland. Now, she's about to find out if she can lead a team to a title.
photo of Lindsay GibbsLindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2019

It's late August at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, and members of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun are arriving for one of biggest regular-season games of the year: a showdown against the Las Vegas Aces that would leave the winner in sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the playoff standings.

Jonquel Jones, the Sun's breakout MVP candidate, doesn't walk in; she glides. Literally. On her hoverboard.

The hoverboard has traveled around the world and back with Jones since she was at George Washington University. She picks up her tiny dog, Rilo, and carries him while riding it. She takes her teammate Bria Holmes' toddler for rides.

"I think she rides that better than she walks," teammate Jasmine Thomas said. "She'll trip over her feet in a heartbeat, she'll tell you."

When asked about her method of transportation, Jones says, "Why walk when I could ride?"

With a smile that fills half of her face and an effervescent laugh that fills every corner of the room, Jones is a 6'6" ray of sunshinefun, playful, laid-back.

There's another side, though. One that convinced her to leave her ancestral home in the Bahamas and chase a hoops dream that has seen her evolve from prized draft prospect to Most Improved Player to Sixth Woman of the Year to what she is nowone of the WNBA's most dominating players and maybe the key to a title for the Sun.

Basketball has always been a big part of Jones' life. For as long as she remembers herself, she remembers the sport. The game began for her when she was about five on a concrete court in her grandmother's backyard on Grand Bahama island. It was a hand-me-down of sorts, built by her father and uncle when they were growing up in the house.

Jones, her four sisters and two brothers lived in an apartment nearby, the swath of land between the locations owned by her family for generations. She remembers gathering fruit as she and her siblings ran between the homes constantly. Grapes, plums, mangoes and custard apple trees. The memory of it brings an ease to her demeanor even today.

But it was that slab of concrete where she started gathering the skills to play the game that would define her.

"That was where I started," Jones said.

While basketball isn't the most popular sport in the Bahamas—that would be soccerit is the home of legendary Bahamian basketball coach Gladstone "Moon" McPhee. Jones' natural talent caught McPhee's eye, and soon she was training with him alongside her friend and current NBA star Buddy Hield.

"She's a hard worker," Hield said. "She's worked so hard since we were young."

Gym time wasn't easy to get in the Bahamas; there weren't many from which to choose. But sometimes, McPhee would open up his gym at 6 a.m., and Hield and Jones would go practice before school. In the summer, McPhee took teams from the Bahamas to play against teams in Florida. No matter how hard Jones worked, the American teams would always win.

"Why am I not on the same level as them?" Jones would wonder.

She soon realized it wasn't just a matter of effort. The girls from Florida had access to coaching and training that she simply couldn't get in the Bahamas.

When she was in middle school, Jones was connected to Diane Richardson, who at the time was the head coach of an elite prep school, Riverdale Baptist, in Maryland (and now is the head women's basketball coach at Towson University). Another Bahamian had gone to Riverdale as part of an exchange program and ended up playing for Richardson and getting a college scholarship. Richardson thought Jones would benefit from doing the same thing.

Diane Richardson took in Jonquel Jones as a teenager and helped coach her into becoming a top-10 pick in the 2016 WNBA draft.
Diane Richardson took in Jonquel Jones as a teenager and helped coach her into becoming a top-10 pick in the 2016 WNBA draft.Stephen Dunn/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

There was one problem: Jones' family couldn't afford the $10,000 annual tuition. But after talking with Jones on the phone a few times, Richardson felt compelled to help the friendly Bahamian. After all, Richardson herself had grown up poor and understood what it was like to need a helping hand. So when Jones was only 14 years old, she moved to Maryland, where Richardson became her legal guardian.

"I wanted to go over there," Jones remembered thinking. "I wanted to play with those girls and be able to be better than all those girls who I'm playing against.

"And I knew that I could do it if I put my mind to it."

When Jones got to the United States to stay with the Richardsons, she was hardly a basketball prodigy. She was a 5'9" guard her teammates nicknamed "Spider" because of her long, gangly limbs (her wingspan stretches to 6'11" now). She couldn't keep up with the speed and physicality of the high school game. But she was determined not to get left behind.

"She kind of challenged me as a coach because she was always wanting to practice," Richardson said. "She worked harder than any other player has ever worked for me."

By the start of her senior year, she forced the people behind the ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rankings to do something they had never done before: retabulate the rankings for the class of 2012 to move Jones from No. 36 to No. 17. They called it the "Jonquel Adjustment."

"Not only did Jones retain what already were fairly formidable perimeter skills, she expanded them, at an off-the-charts rate," ESPN's Keil Moore wrote at the time. "It's almost unheard of that a high school player makes such a dramatic improvement in skills merely between the summer and the start of the high school season."

Jones committed to Clemson, but she quickly grew disillusioned with her choice. After her freshman season, she transferred to George Washington, where Richardson had become an assistant coach.

Jones explained that the Clemson head coach just didn't "seem ready" to run a program.

"With her work ethic, she thought that the rest of the team and the staff wasn't up for that," Richardson said. 

With Richardson at her side again, Jones became one of the country's best players. By her senior season, she led the nation in rebounding and had made herself into one of the most coveted players in the 2016 WNBA draft. That April, she became the first player from the Bahamas drafted into the league when she was selected sixth overall.

"She's a sign of hope for girls in the Bahamas," said Hield, who was the sixth pick in the NBA draft the same year. "Her skill level is off the charts."

Buddy Love !!!! @buddyhield

Make sure you vote for my girl Jonquel Jones for @WNBA All Star. 🇧🇸🇧🇸🇧🇸 https://t.co/717vXYJa6n

A draft-night trade sent her from the L.A. Sparks to Connecticut, where she struggled to adjust despite having the opportunity to play a lot on a young team.

"Oh my gosh, she couldn't even really catch the ball sometimes," teammate Shekinna Stricklen said. "You know, when you first come here and you gotta learn new terms, and oh, man, we laughed so much every day at JJ, I'm not going to lie. We laughed all the time."

After a fairly unremarkable rookie campaign, Jones spent the winter playing in South Korea. Her stint overseas in a league known for its long, physically demanding seasons was a perfect setup for a breakthrough second year.

Chiney Ogwumike's torn Achilles opened up a spot in the starting lineup for Jones, who used it to turn in a head-spinning performance. She entered the WNBA record books by grabbing the most rebounds in league history for a single season. She dunked during the WNBA All-Star Game and was eventually voted the runaway winner of the WNBA's Most Improved Player of the Year.

A less demanding offseason schedule in China and visa problems that delayed her offseason return from the Bahamas caused Jones to get off to a slow start last year, and she never really caught up. She missed training camp and was replaced in the starting lineup by Ogwumike (who had recovered from her Achilles injury). While Jones caught enough of a rhythm to be named Sixth Woman of the Year, she was still frustrated.

"It was difficult for her," Richardson said. "We had plenty of conversations where she just didn't think it was right that she had to sit so much."

Jones has grown in a lot of ways this year, and not just on the court.

Last summer, she began dating a woman. As they grew closer, she gradually became more comfortable posting pictures of her on social media and sharing her personal life with her fans. This summer, she came out to her familyincluding Richardson. It's been a painful process, but also freeing.

"I struggled with it for a long, long, long time," she said.

Her upbringing in the Bahamas was a conservative one, and Jones grew up firmly believing that if you were gay, you were going to hell. Meeting so many out women in women's basketball helped her counter her own beliefs.

"I met so many amazing people that are doing great things, not just for themselves, but their communities," she said. "And when I saw that, I'm like, 'Man, that stuff is bogus.' ... You can't say that God knows you unconditionally, and he's gonna judge you for loving somebody else like that. So for me, I just had to figure it out for myself. It took a little bit of time, though."

Jonquel Jones didn't take a direct path to George Washington University, but after three years there, she left as one of only three women's players in school history with at least 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 100 blocks.
Jonquel Jones didn't take a direct path to George Washington University, but after three years there, she left as one of only three women's players in school history with at least 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 100 blocks.Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

She took a more serious look at her playing career as well. She spent the offseason playing for the top team in Euroleague, the most competitive women's basketball league in Europe, which forced her to part ways with the Bahamas national team program and obtain a European passport. That led to some criticism from locals back home, and some misleading headlines stated she has "renounced" her citizenship. But to Jones, it was a professional decision, not personal.

It was a good one, too. After playing alongside Brittney Griner in Russia, Jones has taken strides as a rim protector and defender. She was named to the All-Defensive first team after notching a league-high 2.0 blocks and 9.7 rebounds per game.

She started out on fire offensively, too, and was named WNBA Player of the Week in three of the first four weeks of the season. By the midpoint of the season, she had played herself into the conversation for league MVP. And she knew it.

"I think she was really, really motivated in the beginning, because she was really, really happy when she called and told me," Richardson said. "But I think since then, she has still put the team in front of herself."

In August, Jones went into a shooting slumpparticularly from outsideand started passing to her teammates even more often. Part of this was because she was getting more double-teams. But it also spoke to a passivity that has haunted her game throughout her career.

"We talk about it all the time," Sun head coach Curt Miller said. "We can't go where we want to go when she has games where she's taking five to nine shots. We need her in double-figure shots every game. We need her hunting those shots."

During the last week of the regular season, while Jones was busy helping the Sun secure that second seed in the WNBA playoffs and get a coveted bye, Hurricane Dorian ravaged her homeland. Joneswho makes it back to the islands whenever her busy schedule allows and still proudly reps the "242" everywhere she goesstruggled to reach her family for days. She listened to news reports about how much damage Hurricane Dorian did on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, the two islands where her family members lived.

Eventually, she got good news: They were all safe. But it hadn't been easy. The apartment her parents were living in during the storm got battered. The roof caved in and dropped, and her family had to move to a neighbor's place. Her nieces and nephews on Grand Bahama were in a bathroom when the windows blew out during the storm.

Last Wednesday, just hours after she finally talked to her sister, she launched a fundraiser online. Players, coaches and fans from around the WNBA have donated. She's already raised more than $40,000 and is using the increased spotlight surrounding her impending playoff run to continue to raise awareness.

"I feel like it's my responsibility," she said. "I feel like God has blessed me and put me in the situation that I'm in right now. So I have to use my voice in order to try and help the people that are just really struggling right now."

Now in her fourth season, Jones led the WNBA in blocks and rebounds while averaging 14.6 points per game for the Connecticut Sun.
Now in her fourth season, Jones led the WNBA in blocks and rebounds while averaging 14.6 points per game for the Connecticut Sun.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Meanwhile, she's preparing to play the first playoff series of her career. Jones insists it isn't a matter of choosing between helping the Bahamas or helping the Sun win a championship; she can do both. She has to do both.

"It does seem inconsequential," she said of the playoffs ahead. "Basketball is just a sport, but I'm also using it as a way to just kind of clear my mind, and then, you know, once I get off the court, then I get back into what I can do for everybody at home."

Jones has come a long way from that fruit-filled field next to her home, a long way from that concrete court in her grandmother's backyard. But that's always where her heart will be. As for basketball? 

"I just play, man," she said. "Like whatever comes, comes. I always say it. I feel like people think it's like a cliche answer, but that's just how I am. I'm from the Islands, it is what it is."

She laughed when she said it, but her nonchalance wasn't the least bit believable.


Lindsay Gibbs is a freelance sports reporter. She covers the Washington Mystics for The Athletic and is the co-host of the feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down.