When he arrived at the John Lucas International Middle School Combine, Joe Jones III was issued jersey No. 125, the last of the bunch, probably because he was one of youngest in the group or maybe because they didn’t know who he was.
Then the whistle blew for the first scrimmage and the 6-foot-7, 200-pound 13-year-old stationed his big butt in the low post – the Bermuda Triangle for today’s perimeter dominated generation – and started to carve out some space and a name for himself.
With his size 17 feet and 7-foot wing span, he darted across the lane to block shots and set screens to the delight of the guards as the buzz increased like a live wire. The heat surged when someone mentioned the boy known as Jo Jo to his parents, coaches and friends, is Greg Oden’s little brother.
“They didn’t know who Joe Jones was,” said Joe Jones, Jr., Oden’s and Jo Jo’s father. “They know now.”
Jo Jo, a seventh grader with a 3.5 grade point average at St. Augustine School in Buffalo, held his own at the Lucas Combine in Houston and at least one scout said of the 125 players invited to the event, he ranked in the top 50. That earned him an invitation to the Elite 125 National Camp on Aug. 10-11 in Nashville, where Jo Jo will compete against players who will be high school freshmen in the fall.
With more national competition comes national recognition and potential burdens. He’s Oden’s brother, meaning some will compare Jo Jo to the pre-2007 Oden before injuries robbed him of a once promising NBA career. Acknowledging a player as one of the nation’s finest before his voice changes is a gamble – Rochester’s Jermaine Bell was ranked higher than LeBron James as a freshman – and critics claim it hinders a player’s development and promotes an attitude of entitlement.
As Jo Jo continued to impress, it didn’t take long for Jones, who attended the Combine along with longtime friend and AAU coach Derek Summers, to notice a change in the way they were being treated. Men wearing four-figure suits and House of Testoni shoes began handing them business cards trying to recruit a child who hasn’t even thought about where he will attend high school.
Summers turned to Jones: “Something’s going on here man. We haven’t paid for a dinner in three days.”
“I was told to keep the circle tight because things are about to change a little bit,” Jones said of protecting his son. “That’s why I’m here.”
Jo Jo’s bloodlines are strong. His father is 6-6 and inhaled rebounds for the great McKinley teams in the early ’80s and his mother, Donna, is 6-foot. Jones’ mother is also a 6-footer as is his sister Dorothy Jones, who played basketball at Louisville in the mid-’80s. And the 7-foot Oden was the top pick overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007. Jo Jo, unfailingly polite, shy and humble, has his priorities in order.
“I’m going to have to work hard in both school and basketball,” said Jo Jo, whose favorite college is Kentucky. “School is first. There’s a lot of time for basketball.”
Jones said calls to Oden lately have gone unanswered and Jo Jo said he hasn’t spoken to him “in a while” but he has his brother to thank for sparking his interest. He didn’t show any passion for basketball until he went to see Oden play in Detroit against the Pistons when he was a rookie.
“I was young, I was real young but when I saw my brother play that’s when I wanted to play basketball,” Jo Jo said. “I want to try and be better than him.”
He began working with Summers, who coached Paul Harris and Jonny Flynn on a 10-U squad. He played with Summers’ 16-U Buffalo United Dragons team and during a game in April, Summers said Jo Jo scored six points and had eight rebounds in only eight minutes facing older players. He was invited to the camp through the recommendation of Jeff Bishop, who ran the G.C. Ballers out of Niagara Falls.
Still, Summers was apprehensive about sending Jo Jo to Houston, fearing he wasn’t ready despite making strides the last three months. “It’s gonna be all right,” Jones told Summers. “Let Jo Jo be a kid.”
National scout Adam Shoulders, the founder and organizer of Tennessee-based Cross Roads Elite, said Jo Jo has good potential.
“He’s still a kid that has a whole lot more upside and his best basketball is ahead of him,” said Shoulders, who first saw Jo Jo at a sixth-grade national camp last year. “He definitely showed some flashes of what’s to come. He catches everything that’s thrown his way because he has really soft hands and with his size and the potential for growth, that’s the most intriguing part. He’s going to be 6-10, 6-11 down the road, maybe even 7-feet.”
Clark Francis, the longtime editor of Hoop Scoop out of Louisville, said Jo Jo has good size but is raw.
“The only reason we’re talking about him is because he’s big,” Francis said. “He’s Greg Oden’s half-brother and that’s the whole reason he’s being discussed. But then again he’s big, he’s somebody to know about and he may get a lot better. The best way to put it is he’s intriguing because of his size. He’s not Greg Oden at that age. I saw Greg Oden at that age and he was pretty darn good.”
There are pros and cons with players who gain national recognition at a young age. Francis, who for years has ranked classes from the fifth grade and up, said one positive is it gives players a starting point to see how they compare to their peers.
“It gives them a reward for the hard work they put into it, it sometimes helps their confidence, it gives them something to aspire to and sometimes it helps them do better in school,” he said. “It’s nice to see where you stack up and going to a camp like John Lucas you learn the skills that are going to help you get better.”
But it doesn’t guarantee greatness or even middling success in high school or college. A look at Francis’ top 90 eighth graders in 2002 shows that five were ranked higher than Oden, who was 6-8 at the time. Three of them – Derrick Caracter, Vernon Macklin and Darrell Arthur – were drafted by NBA teams. Others from the list include Mike Conley and Daequan Cook – who played with Oden at Ohio State – as well as Ty Lawson and Kevin Love. But the majority on the list faded long before they were prep seniors.
The 23-year-old Shoulders cautions against placing phenom labels on adolescents.
“They try and pump these kids up and some haven’t hit puberty yet,” he said. “Rankings go out the window when the ball is tipped and it comes down to who’s going to compete on the basketball court. Competing sometime takes a back seat when you get this notoriety at a young age. You don’t want to compete as much because you think you’ve arrived and that’s not the case.”
Said Francis: “The drawbacks are reading the hype, believing the rankings and believing you are better than you are and you stop working or maybe you don’t work as hard. I believe that’s a big detriment but it makes our job easier because we’re separating guys earlier and earlier.”
Jo Jo wants to be someone scouts remember. He told his father he could dunk but Jones didn’t believe him until he watched him execute one in Houston. Later, Jo Jo made a strong, spinning move in the low post for a score that made Summers run out of the building and text Curtis Aiken and Cliff Robinson, Western New York royalty, with the message: “We’ve got the one.” Jones was moved to tears.
The expectations will be lofty, although no one is anointing him as the Next Great Big Man, as Oden was at 13. As his father repeats often, just let Jo Jo be a kid.
“I’m working hard and following my dream,” Jo Jo said. “I want to be in the NBA.”