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Jonquel Jones’ rise from near obscurity to WNBA stardom

Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Let’s get right to it: Whether you look at the small picture or the big picture, what Jonquel Jones has achieved in her career, and especially in this MVP-caliber season, is mindblowing.

We can call the “small picture” what she does on the court, where the 6-foot-6 forward combines a mix of strength, touch, determination and elite skills to average 19.4 points (on a buttery mix of post moves, fadeaways and face-up 3-pointers to the tune of 1.5 triples a game), 1.3 blocks and a WNBA-leading 11.2 rebounds per game. Jones is the unquestioned leader of this year’s powerhouse team, the Connecticut Sun, who led the league during the regular season with a 26-6 record and begin their playoff run this week in the semifinals against the Chicago Sky.

Jones compares her game most directly to former NBA MVP Kevin Durant, and he enthusiastically co-signs the match even if he’s not nearly the rebounder Jones is. While the achievements themselves may not be quite unprecedented (a few past MVPs have posted similarly impressive statistical seasons), the way Jones plays inside and out has arguably never been seen before.

The “big picture” would be where this unbelievable talent came from before unleashing herself on the WNBA: a country (The Bahamas) with a negligible history in the sport, and then a college (George Washington University) with a decent history of team success in hoops but an equally negligible history of actually producing WNBA players, let alone the best player in the league.

And what was that path? While it’s been shared over the years, it’s a story worth retelling because, MVP favorite or not, we’re talking about a player who was nowhere to be found on the WNBA’s top-selling jersey list and has a small social-media presence. It stands to reason that this undercoverage is related to fans’ lack of awareness, because once you grasp Jonquel Jones’ story … it’s impossible not to, well, like, follow and share.

“I’m so proud of her,” gushes Diane Richardson, Jones’ high school coach and temporary legal guardian. We’re chatting over the phone in mid-September, the day after Jones’ Sun whomped the Liberty 98-69. “She called me after the game like she always does to review the tape. I told her I hadn’t watched the game yet, but I’d call her once I did. So I did, and we talked about where and how she’s getting double-teamed, her positioning, stuff like that.”

This was after a 30-point win.

How’d we get here? As essential as Richardson, now the head coach at Towson University, is to most phases of Jones’ life in basketball, the story begins before high school, of course.

Jones was born in 1994 in Freeport, the second-biggest city in The Bahamas. She was a soccer lover at first, but by 12 she’d transitioned that passion to hoops. Finding the facilities, coaching and overall support for the sport lacking in The Bahamas, Jones told her mother she would go to high school in the States and play college basketball.

While that path was extremely rare, Jones was determined, and had a role model to show the way. “Coach Yo!” Jones exclaims over the phone. “She’s the one.”

Coach Yo is Yolett McPhee-McCuin, now the head coach at Ole Miss. Spurred by her father, Gladstone “Moon” McPhee, who coached many kids in The Bahamas (including Jones and the NBA’s Buddy Hield), McPhee-McCuin was the first Bahamian woman to earn a letter of intent from a Division I college. She played at and graduated from Rhode Island after spending two years at Miami-Dade Community College.

Jones learned from McPhee’s basketball path. She also knew a local, Jurelle Nairn, who had attended Riverdale Baptist High School in Maryland as an exchange student. Nairn connected the 13-year-old, high school freshman to Riverdale Baptist coach Diane Richardson and they began speaking.

“I spoke with Jonquel and her mother. She wanted to play here, but tuition was a lot. ‘You can apply,’ I told them. Mom said they couldn’t afford that,” Richardson recalls. “We just went our ways for a little, but I called her back a couple of times to check on her. You could tell she and her mom were awesome. Four or five months later, I spoke with my husband: ‘This is a great kid with a great family — can we sponsor her?’ He said yes.”

During her successful tenure at the school in Upper Marlboro, Md., Richardson and her family occasionally sponsored local kids they wanted to help attend, but never international students.

“This was before Facetime,” Richardson continues. “So I’d never looked at her or seen her play. Just talked periodically. Then she came with her parents. They spent a week at my house and got acclimated with my family. We took them downtown, went to the White House and the monuments and spent time with my family. Her mother says, ‘It was meant for me to come here and turn my child over to you.’ My husband and I were honored. She was such a great kid.”

It was September 2008 and the families agreed Jones would move in with the Richardsons, who would eventually become her legal guardians. Riverdale Baptist was a nationally ranked program that didn’t necessarily have minutes for a player as raw as Jones, so she worked on her game at her new home.

“She has a tremendous work ethic,” Richardson says. “We had a court at home and she’d be out there shooting at 5 a.m. When she came over, she was actually behind our team with her skills. We played for the national championship that first season and she was the only player not to get in. She cried in the car on the way home. I told her, ‘You’re not ready and I’m not gonna play any favorites. You need to work.’”

So she did. Jones would launch shot after shot on the Richardson’s court — including from deep. “My husband and I both played college basketball and he taught her to shoot 3s,” Richardson says. “We’d play 3s and 2s and she’d get so mad when my husband would make 3s. So she practiced them.”

Jones also kept growing, and studying the game. “[Coach Richardson] started showing me video clips of great players that I should learn from,” Jones says today. “A mix of players that would make me a better overall player: Candace Parker, Delle Donne, Hakeem Olajuwon and KD. KD was always my favorite.” (Jones’ No. 35 with the Sun is no coincidence.)

Jones’ unique origin and late start to high school playing time meant she didn’t get much college attention until very late in her high school career. She received her first college letter after 10th grade from Brown University, a school not known for its basketball program.

The experienced Richardson knew she had something special, though. “She saw the potential,” Jones remembers. “She would look at the players ranked ahead of me and say, ‘I’ve seen this girl. She’s not better than you.’ She really recognized what I could be before anyone else and put that confidence in my head.”

Eventually, the recruitniks came around. As Jones was finishing high school, she moved up to No. 17 in ESPN’s national rankings and received an offer from UNC.

Jones chose Clemson, where McPhee-McCuin was a fast-rising assistant coach. When things didn’t work out at Clemson, Jones transferred back “home,” enrolling at GW in Washington, D.C., where Richardson had become an assistant coach.

“My youngest son, Michael, was going through some things and Jonquel said, ‘I gotta come home for my little brother,’” Richardson says. “When she decided to transfer, Baylor, Louisville, everyone was calling about her. I knew there would be bigger programs for her. Her wanting to be home for Michael was touching. We lived about 45 minutes from GW, so she lived on campus but came home on weekends and holidays. And she just kept working. She was always practicing. People would say to me, ‘Every time I walk past the Smith Center, Jonquel is in there, putting up shots.’”

Lisa Cermignano is a past GW great (yours truly covered her as the Colonial’s beat writer during their Elite 8 season in 1996-97) who went on to become a successful college coach and now runs the coaching division at SIG Sports, the Maryland-based agency that represents Jones. “I’d watch her GW games and be like, ‘Holy cow!’ For the A10, she was head and shoulders above the rest,” says Cermignano, who also wore No. 35 at GW.

Despite GW’s and the Atlantic 10’s complete lack of relevance at the WNBA level, Jones showed such dominance as a scorer and rebounder that there was no doubting her pro potential. Fueled by Richardson, Jones knew it, too. She was confident she could make it to the W no matter what school she went to after Clemson. “Coach Thibault would come watch our practices and he told me I could play in the WNBA,” Jones says of the current Washington Mystics coach and 2019 WNBA champion.

Jones won A10 Player of the Year as a junior at George Washington in 2015. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

As a senior, Jones averaged 16.2 points and an NCAA-best 14.6 rebounds per game while leading GW to a 26-7 record, the A10 tournament championship and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Sure enough, she was the sixth pick of the 2016 draft — the same number her childhood buddy, Hield, was chosen in the NBA draft of the same year. Jones was the first GW player drafted since 2009 and by far the highest ever taken.

Jones took her ever-expanding game up to Mohegan Sun, and after a so-so 2016 season for her and the team, she began an ascension in 2017 that hasn’t abated. That season she won Most Improved Player as the Sun had their first winning season (21-13) since 2012. In 2018, the Sun tweaked her usage, bringing her off the bench in half of their games as they again went 21-13. Jones promptly won Sixth Woman of the Year. The next year, the Sun rode their All-Star to a 23-11 mark and advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2005, when Jones was just 11 years old.

Last year, of course, was “the Wubble.” Jones, who over the course of her pro career has become a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina and starred professionally for Russian power BC UMMC Ekaterinburg alongside the likes of Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart, sat out the shortened season. She returned to the court for the 2020-21 EuroLeague season and helped Ekaterinburg win the title.

The 2021 regular season has been a lesson in momentum, with Jones building off of her success in Russia and the Sun picking up where they left off in 2019. “There’s definitely been some continuity from 2019,” Jones says. “We had a championship-caliber team that year. But we didn’t have DB [DeWanna Bonner] in 2019. And we haven’t had Alyssa [Thomas] yet this year (though she returned the day after we spoke).”

The Sun rolled to a league-best 26-6 regular season mark, going 15-1 at home and closing the year on a 14-game winning streak. Jones was the WNBA’s Player of the Month in August and September (not to mention May) and has already been named the AP’s Player of the Year. MVP honors (with even more prestige than ours) seem sure to follow.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Cermignano gushes. “For all of my former teammates and coaches, it is very special to watch. It was so rare for someone of JJ’s caliber to come into the A10, and then to see what she’s accomplishing is beyond special. It’s close to all of us.”

“I’m so proud of her,” Richardson echoes. “And she’s still working. She just wants to get better and I think she will. Kevin Durant has reached out to her and she’s so excited about that. They’re going to work out together and that’s only going to take her to another level.”

At this point, with the personal accolades flowing in like a waterfall, Jones is more focused on what the Sun can do when they begin their title chase Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. “It’s championship or bust for us,” Jones says with literally zero hesitation. “There are no excuses. We have everything we need to do it.”

And what would a title mean to Jones?

“The world.”

Ben Osborne is the Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked for FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and served as SLAM’s longest-tenured Editor-in-Chief. He has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and books with NYU Press and Rizzoli. Follow him on Twitter @bosborne17.