Damian Jones’ days are numbered with Vanderbiltbasketball, but that’s a good thing.
Jones, the Commodores’ 7-foot junior center, plans to enter the NBA Draft after this season. He told coach Kevin Stallings his plans in a private meeting in February, and he recently reiterated those intentions.
“This is my last go-around,” said Jones, who was voted to the preseason All-SEC first team on Wednesday. “But all that means is that I want to give it all I’ve got. I want to push this team and get to that next step while I’m here.”
Jones was a possible draft pick after his sophomore season, but he was projected as a late selection. His stock has risen over the offseason to a first-rounder and perhaps even a lottery pick (top 14 selections).
Stallings said it will be a logical time for Jones to go in June’s draft, especially if his status remains this high.
“Unless something happens that we’re not hoping for and not anticipating, this will be Damian’s last year here,” Stallings said. “If he is going to get picked anywhere near where they are projecting him to be picked, he’ll leave after this season.”
Jones averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season while racking up 70 blocks and shooting an SEC-best 56.2 percent from the field. He was among 27 of the nation’s top players invited to the first Nike Basketball Academy in the summer, and he’s a candidate for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to college basketball’s top center.
If he remains healthy, Jones would be on track to finish his junior season as only the second player in Vanderbilt history to amass 1,200 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocks in a career, joining former NBA veteran Will Perdue.
But he also wants to get Vanderbilt back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The Commodores return seven of their top nine players, including four starters, from last season’s 21-14 squad. They were picked second in the SEC preseason poll behind Kentucky on Wednesday.
“I think we’ve got a really good team this year, and we could contend with anyone anywhere,” Jones said. “I want to play with high energy all year and rub off on my teammates.”
Jones told Stallings of his plans to enter the 2016 NBA Draft about eight months ago, but it’s not exactly a secret among his teammates.
“They like to make jokes like every time we do something for the last time,” Jones said. “The seniors (Nathan Watkins and Carter Josephs) will say something like, ‘Well, this is the last conditioning session for us and Damian.’ It’s nice to have guys where they are able to joke around about it like that.”
Stallings said some players can get “draft-itis” when they know they’re turning pro after the season, and they’ll focus more on their future career than their present. But he said Jones fits in the opposite category.
NBA scouts already flock to Vanderbilt preseason practices, and they’ll visit even more once the season tips off on Nov. 13 versus Austin Peay. But Jones said he’s paid no mind to the NBA talk.
“I don’t pay attention to it unless people show me something about the draft,” Jones said. “I just continue to work hard, watch film from last year and try to improve on what I wasn’t good at last year.
“Even those guys in the NBA get better and better all the time. You can’t stay at the same place or you’ll get passed up, and it’s that way for me here.”
Courtesy of: Adam Sparks at 615-259-8010 and on Twitter @AdamSparks.