TAMPA — To say that Dominique Jones is confident entering tonight's NBA draft is unnecessary, because Dominique Jones is always confident when it comes to basketball.
If projections — including his own — are correct, the 6-foot-5 guard will become USF's first-ever first-round pick after a strong month showing NBA scouts what he knew about his ability to play at the next level.
"I think the NBA teams (have been) seeing me up close … really getting a hold of my personality from interviews, seeing what a good person I am, a confident person as well, ready to play," Jones said before a workout last week at Berkeley Prep High School. "There aren't many people in this draft who are ready to step on the court right now, but I'm one of those players."
When Jones opted to skip his senior year at USF to enter the draft, he was hardly a consensus first-round pick, starting the predraft process projected as a second-rounder (those don't get guaranteed contracts and may wind up overseas or in the NBA Developmental League). Several mainstream mock drafts now have him going between the 23rd and 27th picks, the latter belonging to the New Jersey Nets, who liked Jones enough to bring him in for two workouts.
Those workouts — often a half-dozen draft prospects at one session — brought out the competitive spirit in Jones. At the league's combine in Chicago, he turned heads with his measurables: a 6-foot-9 wingspan, good numbers in agility drills, and he led all guards by bench-pressing 185 pounds 19 times. He has traveled to 18 cities since mid May, gaining confidence with each showing.
"It all comes down to who wants it more," said Jones, who will watch the draft with family and friends in his hometown of Lake Wales. "You go in there one-on-one with somebody who has just as much talent, and you have to go at them. I love the game, I love to play, but I have a family to feed as well. So am I going to let this guy eat my lunch, or am I going to get it?"
ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, who sees Jones as a late first-round pick, said he is physically ready to play in the league, with a frame and mind-set that make him "like a linebacker in a basketball player's body."
"I just think a lot of what he does will translate well to the NBA," Fraschilla said this week. "He has terrific strength, reasonably good quickness and size. I think the most impressive thing about him is he's a great competitor and a very underrated passer."
Jones played primarily shooting guard at USF, chipping in more than his share of rebounds and assists, but part of his ascent on draft boards has been his versatility, and the idea that he could develop into a point guard in addition to being a proven scorer.
"I feel like that makes me more valuable than an average 2-guard or an average point guard. I can be effective at any position," said Jones, who led the Big East in scoring as a junior. "That's like you're getting two picks in one person."
After leading USF to the NIT for its first postseason appearance in eight years, Jones said he strongly considered coming back for his senior year. But he wound up finding motivation in his doubters, even those on online message boards.
"I was going to come back to school, but then I started reading different things from USF fans, supposed to be Dominique Jones fans, (saying) 'He's going straight to Europe. No way he's going to get drafted. He's not an NBA player.' Seeing things like that, that made me want to go prove people wrong. That's one of the main reasons I left, added to the other reasons.
"I'm glad I made that decision because now I'm proving everybody wrong who really thought they understood basketball."
Even experts who praise him see areas with room for improvement. ESPN's Jay Bilas, who likes Jones as a first-rounder, wants to see a better shooter and a more well-rounded player.
"I think he's a very good scorer. He's strong. Another guy who has long arms. … Not what you'd consider him a drop-dead great shooter," Bilas said. "I think if he can improve the consistency of his jump shot and continue to concentrate on being a good defender, with his ability to get to the free-throw line and to score, I think he can play in the NBA."
Watching the NBA playoffs in recent weeks, Jones has thought about the possibility that this time next year he could taking the court in the NBA playoffs, lining up against players he has seen on TV.
"I'm trying to figure out how Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce or (Rajon) Rondo can wake up this morning and be like, 'You know what? I have Game 7 tonight,' " he said. "I hope I can be in that position someday."
Greg Auman can be reached at (813) 226-3346 and at email@example.com. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.