(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player has been busy since leading the Stanford Cardinal to the national title last April. A few weeks after hoisting the championship trophy, Haley Jones was waiving to onlookers from an open-air jeep through the downtown streets of her hometown Santa Cruz, CA in a parade held in her honor. The city had just declared April 3rd Haley Jones Day and given her the Key to the City.

A month later, while finishing finals for her online Spring courses, the Communications major flew to Puerto Rico with USA Basketball for the 2021 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup. With a stacked roster that included the likes of Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Elissa Cunane (NC State), Naz Hillmon (Michigan), and Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Jones told NCAA Digital that she enjoyed being a role player off the bench for a change. 

“We’re all coming from kind of being that player on your team, and now you’re here and you’re picking up a different role,” Jones said. “I was coming off the bench and I knew what I needed to do to help my team, if that was being a facilitator, if that was picking up my defense, if that was rebounding, whatever Coach Staley, Coach Barnes, and Coach Rizzotti needed from me, I was going to do that.”

The 6’1” self-described “point-forward” has become the go-to player for Stanford, leading her team to a 31-2 record last year in her sophomore season while averaging 13.2 points, 2.9 assists, and 7.4 rebounds per game. 

After an injury cut short her freshman season and the pandemic had Stanford playing only six games on their home court last year, it wouldn’t be unfair for Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer to expect even more from a healthy, rested Jones this year. 

The No. 1 recruit in her class, Jones is already one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the women’s college game. She’s at home in the paint but won’t hesitate to bring the ball up the court and facilitate the offense. She’s a shooting threat from almost anywhere on the court, can score off the drive, and was second in assists last season behind point guard Kiana Williams. ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli compares her “positionless” abilities to Cheryl Miller, one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Perhaps the most convincing reason to bet on a Stanford title repeat is the fact they are returning 12 of 13 from their national championship roster. And most of those 12 players saw significant minutes throughout the regular and postseason as VanDeveer stuck to her deep rotation even when the stakes got high. With shooting guard Lexie Hull and defensive specialist Anna Wilson on the perimeter and Fran Bilibi and blocking machine Cameron Brink in the front court, Jones has a supporting cast with bona-fide championship experience. And winning Stanford’s first championship in 30 years didn’t satisfy anyone’s hunger, least of all Jones’. 

“We aren’t settling. We want to win another. I have two more years. I want to win two more,” she said.

In the Pac-12, Stanford will have Oregon and UCLA as their main competitors. After losing their historic big three to the 2020 WNBA draft, the Ducks are a full season into a quick rebuild, led by the dangerous duo of Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally.

If they make it as far as the Final Four, chances are good that Stanford will see both UConn and South Carolina in the wings of the Target Center in Minneapolis. Both teams are returning all five of their 2020-2021 starters, with Dawn Staley’s squad adding 6’7” Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso and Geno Auriemma’s Huskies adding No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd.

If (or when) the east coast powerhouses come up against Stanford next April, they are liable to meet a Haley Jones who is more confident in her game than ever before. After playing against veteran professionals throughout the AmeriCup, Jones says she has learned the value of efficiency — of doing more in less time with quicker pull ups and goofy-footed finishes. As for becoming a legit threat beyond the arc, Jones says, “I’m getting that three-point shot going. I’m working on stuff.” 

If the defending champs make another deep run next spring, it will be in large part due to Haley Jones continuing to come into her own as the most complete player in the college game.

Stanford’s first regular season game is Thursday, Nov. 11 against Morgan State. They play No. 25 Texas on Nov 14.