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 house, 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, a 6-foot-5 guard who led the Big East in scoring as a junior, became the Bulls' first NBA first-round pick, taken by the Grizzlies at No. 25. Barely 20 minutes later, word had spread that the Grizzlies had drafted Jones on behalf of the Mavericks. And Dallas 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 spent draft night in New York, where picks dressed in new suits smile for ESPN cameras, 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 2002.
"It builds a lot of hope," said Burney Hayes, an officer with the Lake Wales Police Department who coached Jones and Stoudemire.
"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."
Jones, 21, 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.
"I always promised (Dominique) 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."
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."
Jones worked out for 18 teams, but had only an interview with the Mavericks.
"When we interviewed him, he thought he was a cross between Dwyane Wade and Rodney Stuckey from Detroit," coach Rick Carlisle told the Dallas Morning News. "That sounded pretty good to me.
"We like his toughness and his ability to score. He seems like a very humble kid and a very hard-working kid. We were trying to move up into the mid part of the first round to get him, and as it turned out, he slid down to 25.''
Being a first-round pick means a guaranteed two-year contract, making Jones a millionaire the day he signs his first deal. Jones joins a team famous for owner Mark Cuban, who gave Memphis $3 million for Jones' draft rights.
"We tried to trade into the top 20 to get drones, got lucky to get him 25," Cuban wrote on his page at Twitter.com. "Make that djones from s fla... Can't tyep."
Jones led the Big East in scoring as a junior, but just as important, he led USF to the postseason for the first time in eight years. The Bulls lost to N.C. State in the first round of the NIT. USF's highest previous pick wascenter Solomon Jones, who went in the second round at 33rd overall in 2006.