It’s been a great season for the WNBA’s living legends. In June, Diana Taurasi became the league’s all-time leading scorer. Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm is just three assists away from becoming the all-time assists leader. And Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles is the overwhelming frontrunner for the MVP award.
But the most pioneering performance hasn’t come from a Team USA stalwart, or a Geno Auriemma protégé. Rather, it’s come from Jonquel Jones, an easygoing 23 year old from the Bahamas who, in just her second year as a pro, is two games away from completing the single-best rebounding season in WNBA history.
With two games left, the 6-foot-6 Connecticut Sun forward leads the league in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage—meaning she has a great shot at becoming the first player since Cheryl Ford, in 2006, and just the second player in WNBA history to finish a season on top of both categories. She’s also on pace to break the league records for both overall rebound percentage (she’s currently at 23. percent, ahead of Chamique Holdsclaw’s mark of 23.29) and rebounds per 40 minutes (she’s averaging 16.7 right now, and the top mark is 15.1 by Tina Charles in 2010).
Most importantly, she’s 16 rebounds away from breaking Charles’s single-season rebounding record. And while most athletes try and play it coy when talking about stats and records, Jones is quick to admit that she’s gunning for the top spot.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking at it,” Jones told Deadspin on Tuesday night, before her career-high 22-rebound performance in the Sun’s win over the Washington Mystics. “I want to know how many I need in order to break it. The fact that I’m even within reach is great, but if you can go get it, why not go get it?”
It’s refreshing that Jones, an uber-friendly personality who is almost frustratingly quick to share credit for her success with her teammates and the Sun organization, doesn’t apologize for her ambition. Still, she does admit that this season, which saw her voted in as starter in the All-Star game and lead her team to a top-four seed in the upcoming playoffs, has been full of pinch-me moments.
“If someone told me, yeah, your second year in the league you’re going to [be an All-Star and break rebounding records], I would have been like, ‘Who are you talking to? You can’t be talking about me,’” she said.
But the bright spotlight hasn’t turned Jones into a deer in the headlights. In fact, it’s done, well, whatever is the opposite of that. At the All-Star game in Seattle, Jones stole the show, scoring a game-leading 24 points and nine rebounds. She finished the game with a dunk, making her just the sixth player in league history to dunk in a WNBA game.
Her performance was so great that it didn’t feel that inappropriate when she was asked point-blank by The Summitt’s Howard Megdal in the post-game press conference, “Do you think and do you plan to become the best player in the world?” While the MVP award for that game went to Maya Moore, who led the West to victory with 23 points, the event felt like the coronation of Jones as the next big thing in women’s basketball, particularly if you listened to her peers.
Every player, East and West alike, gushed about Jones. Moore marveled at her height, athleticism, speed, and confidence, as well as her ability to dominate in the post, play the pick and pop, and shoot from the outside. Bird was in awe of the fluidity of Jones’s game. Skylar Diggins-Smith was taken with her ball-handling ability, and Taurasi got straight to the point, telling me: “Jonquel Jones is going to be a problem in this league for a long time.”
Besides being an elite rebounder and efficient all-around shooter, Jones is a versatile ball handler; she played point guard growing up, pre-growth spurt, and has maintained those skills. And as Bird said, she’s also light-footed, almost graceful, on the court. While direct WNBA to NBA comparisons are usually best avoided, her long limbs, effortless-looking power, and high-arched jump shot are eerily similar to Kevin Durant.
She has room to improve offensively, but with 15.8 points per game, she’s hardly a scoring slouch. In fact, she’s sixth in the league in field-goal percentage, shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 45.1 percent from beyond the arch, as well as scoring 20 or more points 10 times this season. In a May game against the Chicago Sky, she registered just the 13th 20-20 game in WNBA history, with 23 points and 21 rebounds.
If at this point you’re wondering why you haven’t heard as much about Jones as, say, Breanna Stewart or Kelsey Plum, her unconventional path to basketball stardom is the likely culprit. She grew up playing on a basketball court at her grandmother’s house, built by her father, and training long hours in Freeport, Grand Bahama, with her friend (and current NBA player) Buddy Hield. The town had just three indoor gymnasiums. She moved to Maryland when she was 14 and blossomed into a star at George Washington University—a school that had never produced a first-round WNBA draft pick. But her senior year, she led the nation in rebounds, and ended up being selected sixth overall in the 2016 WNBA draft — a couple months before Hield was picked sixth in the NBA draft.
Jones started just eight games her rookie season. But when Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike tore her achilles playing in China during the offseason, Jones was the obvious contender for the starting spot. She’s taken advantage of the opportunity.
She had a phenomenal offseason playing in South Korea, where she led her team to a championship and was named league MVP. The intense, physical training she underwent there is the most-cited reason for Jones’s improvement. But one Sun teammate, point guard Courtney Williams, said she thinks the improvement is mostly mental. As a high draft pick with so much potential, everyone on the team, especially veterans and coaches, had incredibly high expectations for Jones, and they weren’t afraid to let her know when she wasn’t living up to them.
“She takes a lot of criticism from a lot of people,” Williams said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that she’s improved on, is taking that constructive criticism and not letting it really get to her.”
Jones admitted that last year was difficult, but, without elaborating on any specifics, said that the group around her in Connecticut this season is much more supportive. “People didn’t say things positively, it wasn’t coming from a genuine place, so for me it was hard,” she said. “I know everybody that’s talking about me now, I know they truly care, and I know that they just want me to succeed.”
The Sun have surprised the league with their play this season, and have secured a first-round bye in the playoffs. The spotlight on Jones—and the pressure that comes with it—will increase dramatically over the next few weeks. The whispers about her potential will turn into yells. She’s trying not to think about that.
“I think all island people are ‘let’s-see-what-happens’ type of people,” she said. “I don’t have that approach when it comes to my profession, but I just try to get better every year, and so if that means in my prime I’m the best in the world, then I’ll take that. If not, then it is what it is.”
After all, she’s much more focused on the number 398—the number of rebounds she needs to top to overtake Charles’s record. She’s making sure her teammates are aware too.
“I’m trying to tell them, like listen, if I’m there, don’t come jumping over me, don’t try to grab my little rebounds that I drop, let me pick them up,” she told me.
She sounded like she was kidding, but we both knew, this was no laughing matter.