Jones makes history as Bulls' first 1st-rounder
LAKE WALES -- In the final moments before the NBA draft began Thursday night, a group of about 20 friends and relatives of USF guard Dominique Jones, gathered at his grandmother's home, joined hands, bowed their heads and prayed in thanks for the opportunity awaiting him.
Two and a half hours later, as a much larger crowd circled around Jones in celebration, they prayed again.
Jones, the 6-foot-5 guard who led the Big East in scoring as a junior, became the Bulls' first-ever NBA first-round pick, taken by the Memphis Grizzlies with the No. 25 pick. Barely 20 minutes later, word had spread that the Grizzlies had drafted Jones on behalf of the Dallas Mavericks -- that is where his NBA career will begin.
"The emotions come out because you've got your foot in the door. This is just my beginning," said Jones, who walked through a crowd of supporters and laid his head on the hood of his Chevy Tahoe, overcome by a dream come true.
Jones could have gone to New York, where draft picks smile for ESPN cameras in new suits, but he chose to stay in Lake Wales, proud of his roots in this small town in Polk County.
"This is where I come from. I grew up here on these same streets with these same people," he said. "Everybody's struggling, everybody has things going on in their lives. I have something like this to represent everybody. I've got a job now and I've got work to do."
Lake Wales hasn't seen excitement like this since another proud native, Amare Stoudemire, was the No. 9 pick in the 2002 NBA draft.
"It builds a lot of hope," said Burney Hayes, an officer with the Lake Wales Police Department who coached both Jones and Stoudemire in their early playing days. "It ingrains that they have a chance, that if young people will do their part, that they have an opportunity to go beyond what the norm is. It doesn't come by chance. Dominique Jones put in the work. He listened, and he kept positive people around him. That makes a difference."
Jones was relaxed and mingling with his guests outside for the first half of the opening round, then went inside with his father Norman, watching from the floor of his grandmother's bedroom. A huge crowd watching on a small TV in the driveway exploded when his name was called at 9:45 p.m. He came out teary-eyed, as did his father, who saw years of hard work pay for his son, as he'd told him it would.
"I always promised him that if he put in the work and was thankful and humble, God would take care of the rest," the elder Jones said. "I promised him that, and he believes everything I tell him. I am so proud because he was so easy to raise. No matter what I said, he trusted me enough to stay the course. He's always made me feel proud as a parent."
Jones is the highest drafted player in USF history and the program's first-ever first-round draft pick. The 6-foot-5 junior wasn't a lock for the first round when he decided to skip his senior year at USF and enter the draft. He worked out for 18 teams, bouncing from city to city across the country, and yet he'll start his NBA career with a team that never brought him in for a workout.
His USF teammates gathered in Tampa at the home of coach Stan Heath, who has coached first-round picks before, but found something special in Jones being the Bulls' first.
"What he did for this program makes it more special," Heath said. "It hasn't happened before here. He really put us on the map nationally in a big way. I'm really excited for him and his family."
Being a first-round pick means having a guaranteed two-year contract, making Jones a millionaire the day he signs his first NBA contract. Jones joins a team famous for owner Mark Cuban, who according to ESPN gave Memphis $3-million for his draft rights. Cuban quickly Tweeted about the pick after getting Jones for his team.
"We tried to trade into the top20 to get drones, got lucky to get him 25," he wrote. "Make that djones from s fla... Can't tyep."
Jones led the Big East in scoring as a junior, but as importantly, he led USF to the postseason for the first time in eight years, as the Bulls lost to N.C. State in the first round of the NIT. USF had never had a first-round pick in its history, with the highest previous pick being center Solomon Jones, who went in the second round with the 33rd overall pick in 2006.