Duke's Jones grows up in a hurry
Duke freshman Alexis Jones has this one move that makes defenders look like their sneakers are glued to the court.
She dribbles with her left hand, then leans that same way, but slowly, as if she is half-heartedly considering driving left -- the whole thing totally noncommittal. A split second later, she is skipping the ball from left to right, the trajectory of the bounce a compressed "V." And then, the 5-foot-9 guard is gone, brushing past the shoulder of her defender and attacking the heart of the defense.
The move isn't just a typical crossover; it's an eye-opening demonstration of the art of timing and the advantage that comes from changing speeds so deftly. It's also a move that Jones displayed multiple times during last weekend's ACC women's basketball tournament, which the Blue Devils won -- for the eighth time since 2000 -- thanks in large part to the 18-year-old from Irving, Texas. Jones was named tourney MVP after scoring 24 points against North Carolina in the championship.
Just three weeks earlier, Jones had taken over point guard duties from junior Chelsea Gray, who suffered a dislocated kneecap during a game on Feb. 17 and is sidelined for the rest of the season. The loss of Gray, one of the top floor leaders in the nation, looked to be a serious blow to Duke's postseason hopes. But coach Joanne P. McCallie immediately slid Jones over from shooting guard, believing the lefty possessed the wherewithal to earn the trust of her teammates.
McCallie was oh so right.
After the Blue Devils thumped the Tar Heels, 92-73, UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell went so far as to suggest that Duke is now stronger in some ways, despite losing a player of Gray's caliber.
"From what I can see, they're probably a better team with Alexis Jones out there than they were with Chelsea Gray," Hatchell said. "They're doing a lot of things at point that they weren't doing when Chelsea was out there."
So, yeah, it was a memorable weekend for Jones, but not just because of the smooth moves she showed on the court at the Greensboro Coliseum. It also marked the first time since October that her father, David -- the man who taught Alexis that slick handle -- had seen her play in person. He watched the games from the top of Section 110, up above Duke's bench, a white towel wrapped around his shoulders, his wheelchair pulled up to the railing overlooking the court.
"What do I like about him watching me play in person? It's simple: That he's still alive and still able to watch me play," Alexis told espnW. "I know there are many kids out there whose dads aren't alive or aren't around."
As you might imagine, traveling from Texas to North Carolina isn't easy for David Jones. In fact, not much has been easy for him since Easter weekend of 2007, when the Ford Explorer he was driving hit a patch of black ice and flipped multiple times on a highway in Sweetwater, Texas. Alexis was in the SUV, along with a few AAU teammates and her younger brother, Andrew.
"For some odd reason, the car just took off from me," said David, recalling the incident during halftime of Duke's ACC semifinal victory over Florida State, a game in which Alexis had 12 points and 7 assists. (She is averaging 9.3 points per game this season.)
The accident happened while David was driving the kids to basketball practice in Dallas, where the competition was top-notch, the kind of exposure that helped young players from small towns get looks from college scouts. "I just remember talking to him upside down in the car, asking him if he was OK, asking him what I should do," said Alexis, who walked away from the accident unharmed except for a black eye. "And the first thing he told me was to go find the other kids. That was his first instinct, of course."
Everyone escaped with minor injuries except for David, who couldn't feel his legs, paralyzed from the chest down. In the first couple of years after the accident, he had a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. He stopped coaching for a while, believing that kids wouldn't listen to someone instructing them from a wheelchair.
"He had been my coach all of my life," Alexis said. "He would tell me what I needed to do and how to do it, when to make the move, everything. He knows me well. Whatever he says about hoops is right."
Alexis had already gleaned so much knowledge from her father. And with the help of a few local coaches who stepped in to help, her game continued to improve. "I think what happened definitely motivates her," said Gray, who calls Alexis her "little sister."
"She always has that in the back of her head -- that she's playing for her family and for her father."
And watching Jones play is almost hypnotic. Yes, she still makes the occasional freshman mistake: throwing a pass at someone's ankles or thinking she can lift a ball over defenders, not realizing they are much quicker at the college level. But she also weaves through gaps that don't seem to exist, bringing the ball through spaces in creative ways.
"Her game is starting to shine through," said David Jones, who has returned to coaching. "I give her about five more games, and she will have eliminated some of the mistakes you're now seeing."
After Duke's win over Florida State last weekend, his daughter sat in Duke's locker room, still sporting the signature long sleeve Nike shirt she wears under her jersey. (Jones hates sweat; the shirt whisks it away.) She explained how what happened in 2007 still has an impact on her today, and that the lessons even apply to her team's current situation, as the Blue Devils move on without Gray.
"I learned that anything could happen at any point in time," Jones said. "And I also learned that when things go wrong, you keep fighting. Chelsea and I play two different types of games. And Chelsea has been playing with these girls for longer than I have. So it's about trying to get them to trust me on the court."
With the way she has been playing the past few weeks, Jones is gaining converts in a hurry.