This story appeared in the Dallas/Fort Worth edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
"Is it too early to get excited about Perry Jones?"
So asked Bill Simmons, ESPN.com's most popular columnist, on Twitter last year. Simmons, with a New York Times best seller to his credit and more than a million followers on Twitter, has the kind of reach that extends far beyond that of the traditional high school basketball media.
Simmons is known as an NBA guru who rarely, if ever, mentions prep sports, but Jones got his attention with one jaw-dropping YouTube video, appropriately titled "6'10 Perry Jones Sickest Player in Vegas; Crazy Potential."
The clips, taken mostly from the Center Stage tournament in Las Vegas, show Jones doing things kids his size -- he's actually 6-foot-11 -- shouldn't be able to do. He runs the break and crosses over defenders en route to monster jams. He hits baseline fadeaways and top-of-the-key 3-pointers. He blocks shots into the stands and throws down alley-oops on passes that seem destined to sail out of bounds.
In short, the clips show how Jones, a Baylor-bound senior power forward at Duncanville (Duncanville, Texas), became the nation's No. 3 player in the ESPNU 100 after a junior season in which he was, in his own words, "a role player."
After spending two years at Wilson (Dallas, Texas), Jones joined a loaded Duncanville team that featured Division I-bound seniors Roger Franklin (Oklahoma State), Shawn Williams (Texas) and Reger Dowell (Oklahoma State) last season. But these days, Jones' role is that of a superstar. And anyone who watched him last year knew he'd be special, even if it wasn't his time to shine just yet.
"He really had a lot of athletic ability with that size," says Phil McNeely, who coached Duncanville for 27 years before retiring last spring. "Some of his alley-oop dunks, the ball would be thrown up by the square and you'd think there's no way he'd get it, but he would."
Jones entered his junior year ranked No. 47 in the ESPNU Super 60, and while his numbers for the season weren't eye-popping, he got the job done. He averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game, earning District 7-5A co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Then came his breakout summer.
By the time the AAU season was over, Jones had shot up 44 spots in the rankings and was being compared to other do-everything big men like Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett.
Shortly after he got home from Vegas, word about Jones began to filter out via the Internet and he became a local celebrity.
"I was in Walmart with my friends and all of a sudden some guy I've never met before comes up to me and tells me how good my game looked on YouTube," Jones says.
For Jones, it was confirmation he'd come a long way since sixth grade, when he was so bad at basketball his teammates thought he should play football.
"Other players would laugh at me and tell me I wasn't any good," he says. "They'd say I should give up."
But at the rate he was growing (from 6-foot in sixth grade to 6-foot-4 in seventh to 6-foot-6 in eighth), Jones realized his future would be on the hardwood, not the gridiron. In seventh grade, he joined the LBA Seawolves AAU team and slowly but surely started to improve. He dunked for the first time during the summer heading into his freshman year, giving him a much-needed dose of confidence.
During that school year, Jones showed enough potential that Baylor offered him a scholarship. He immediately jumped at the opportunity, verbally committing to coach Scott Drew and the Bears.
As a freshman at Wilson, Jones got to go up against current Golden State Warriors big man Anthony Randolph every day in practice. Randolph, who was a senior at the time, would sometimes play one-on-one with Jones. Randolph won every time, but the games got closer as the season went on. By the end of the year, Jones was making the future NBA lottery pick sweat.
"That made me feel like I could play the game at the highest level," he says.
It took a little bit of time, but Jones eventually got there.
Not surprisingly, once he reached that level this past summer, all the big names in college basketball came calling. Baylor has been on the upswing lately, making the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and the NIT final in 2009, but the Bears are certainly not a traditional power. So when schools like Kansas, Florida, Syracuse and Georgetown started showing interest as Jones' stock rose, it would have been only natural for him to be tempted. But he never bailed on his commitment to Baylor.
"That's the kind of kid he is," McNeely says. "He gave his word and he never wavered."
Now Jones has the chance to follow in the footsteps of Durant, Michael Beasley and Blake Griffin as versatile Big 12 big men who dominate in college from Day 1. And it wouldn't be all that surprising to see him follow the path of Beasley and Durant, who both went No. 2 in the draft after their freshman campaigns.
"He has to get stronger, but if he can keep that type of effort and play up, he can be one and done," McNeely says. "In a couple years, I can see him starting in the NBA."
When that day comes, expect Jones to be the same humble, level-headed kid he was long before the YouTube videos and Twitter shout-outs.
"The sky's the limit for him," says Eric McDade, Duncanville's first-year coach. "He's so grounded and doesn't have the mentality to waver in his pursuit, and that's going to put him over the top."
So, to answer Bill Simmons' question: This is the perfect time to get excited about Perry Jones.