Unknown Jones ready to step into spotlight

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Friday, November 10, 2017
Arkansas guard C.J. Jones (23) takes a three-point shot over Central Oklahoma forward Kyle Keener Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, during the first half in Bud Walton Arena.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas guard C.J. Jones (23) takes a three-point shot over Central Oklahoma forward Kyle Keener Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, during the first half in Bud Walton Arena.

— There’s nowhere to hide in Central Park Christian’s basketball gym.

The Birmingham, Ala., private school houses one of the nation’s best Christian high school basketball programs, but it’s home arena is anything but gaudy.

The no-frills gym seats about 500 people. Small aluminum bleachers with three rows apiece are tucked into alcoves around the edges of the court, making it easy to see who has showed up for what is almost always an Eagles win.

Thanks to the intimate setting, it didn’t take C.J. Jones long to spot TJ Cleveland sitting in the front row of one of the bleachers before a late January home game. He still remembers the exact spot the Arkansas assistant was positioned on the sideline.

This was a big moment for Jones, then a senior in high school. He’d been committed to Tennessee-Chatanooga, but decided to re-open his recruiting after a strong start to his senior year in the hopes of attracting attention from bigger programs.

The game was a chance for a prospect miles off the national radar, ranked the No. 340 recruit in the country by one service, to impress an assistant from an SEC program.

“I was like this is really my chance to either get it or don’t get it,” Jones said.

He got it, exploding for 41 points, knocking down shots all over the floor and showing off his athleticism.

“I was just on,” Jones recalls.

“I said the only way he’s going to catch the eye of a major Division I coach is if he catches fire one night and they see that he’s a shooter,” said Chad Jones, C.J.’s father. “And it happened.”

C.J. had already been on Arkansas’ radar, but the performance no doubt helped his case. The Razorbacks were in the market for a scorer and the athletic 6-foot-5 wing fit the bill.

“It all just happened and it made sense,” Anderson said.

C.J. committed during a late February visit to Fayetteville. At the time, the news wasn’t groundbreaking. To the outside world, he was an unheralded recruit, almost a spring gamble.

Fast forward almost two years, he is one of the most important pieces on an Arkansas team trying to make the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008. His combination of shooting, size and athleticism will be needed if the Hogs plan on having a memorable March.

One former NBA scout posited C.J. was the best pro prospect on last year’s roster before he’d even played a game, a byproduct of the aforementioned attributes, surprising praise for a freshman who slipped through the cracks for almost every program in the nation.

He didn’t for Arkansas, thanks to Birmingham ties.

The connection

The Jones family had some time to kill, so they decided to go eat at the P.F. Chang's in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport during a three-hour layover before their connecting flight to Fayetteville for C.J.’s official visit.

After the meal, they took the SkyTrain back to their terminal and were met with an alarming discovery: their plane was already pulling away from the terminal. Not the greatest omen.

“Geeze, this is how our trip’s supposed to start," Chad thought, panicking a bit. "But then I was like, maybe coach A will feel sorry for us. They were cool about it. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny then."

They wound up having to stay at an airport hotel and catch a red-eye flight to Fayetteville the next morning. C.J., ever calm and laid-back wasn't phased.

"As long as we told TJ and them what was going on, we good," C.J. said.

It had to help that Anderson and Cleveland were the coaching staff he was headed to see, instead of, say, Tennessee, another high-major school that had started sniffing around. He was comfortable with them.

C.J. grew up around Anderson and Cleveland when they coached at UAB from 2002 to 2006. Chad played for the Blazers from 1994 to 1997 and started bringing C.J. to UAB games and kids basketball camps at an early age. The minimum age for camps was at least 5 years old, but C.J. remembers taking the Bartow Arena court at 4. He wasn’t officially part of the camp at that point, so sometimes he would hang out in the coaches’ offices or chill with the college players. Occasionally, he’d play with the 5-and 6-year olds on a hoop lowered to five feet.

“I would be better than most of them, so they used to let me keep playing,” C.J. said.

He was a hit with the staff.

“Coach (Anderson) just loved him because he saw the excitement in his eyes,” Chad said.

Those early camp memories were the first of many, but the Jones lost touch with the coaching staff when Anderson took the Missouri gig in the spring of 2006. The relationship was rekindled in the summer of 2015 when C.J. made the trek to Fayetteville to participate in Arkansas’ elite camp prior to starting his senior year at Central Park Christian.

He’d played AAU basketball for the Birmingham Storm, but wasn’t on the radar of any big schools. Still, the face time with Anderson served to jog their memory.

“He was just telling me he really liked my game and I’d really gotten better,” C.J. recalls. “He was going to start coming up to the school and watching me.”

That’s what wound up happening.

First, Cleveland came and watched C.J. drop 41 shortly after decommitting from UT-Chatanooga. Then, Cleveland’s father stopped by for another home game. This time, C.J. poured in 38.

“I knew his dad was going to tell him, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to get him,’” C.J. said.

Shortly after, Central Park Christian traveled to Mississippi for a big game. Arkansas happened to be playing at Ole Miss the next day, so Anderson and Cleveland were able to make it and witness another strong performance first-hand.

After the game, Anderson approached Jones. He’d seen enough.

“I really want you to visit and want you to play for me,” Jones recalls Anderson’s pitch.

The family was elated, setting up an official visit for the next weekend, which, flight fiasco aside, went glowingly. They got to take in an 84-72 Arkansas win and later head to Anderson’s house for some quality time.

That’s when it happened. Anderson brought Chad and Delena into his office and informed them the staff had decided to offer C.J., who was sitting in the living room. Tears flowed.

I thought, it’s just a visit,” Chad said. “Really, seriously, in my mind, I’m not there. He was like, we’re going to offer C.J. a scholarship and I looked at him and I was like, ‘Seriously?!’ And I was crying like a little baby.”

There were no waterworks from the even-keeled C.J., but he knew exactly what he wanted to do, verbally committing before leaving the house. It wouldn’t be at Bartow Arena, but he’d get coached by Anderson again. For real, this time.

“That’s where the relationships had come in,” Anderson said.

The Shot

C.J. couldn't complain about the No. 340 ranking too much. After all, it came from the only major recruiting services that even bothered to rank him.

The anonymity only served as more fuel. It wasn't the first time he'd been forced to scrap in an underdog role. He’d been in that position for three straight years, in fact.

From fourth to sixth grade, he rarely started a game while playing at the YMCA. His role off the bench wasn’t big, either. He was no Jamal Crawford in those days.

“I was getting like three points a game,” C.J. said.

After one particularly frustrating game in the sixth grade, an exasperated Delena vowed to confront the coach about her son’s playing time and role. Chad intervened.

“I’m like, ‘No, it’s not the coach’s fault. It’s his fault. Cause when he gets in there, he doesn’t do anything,’” Chad said.

His message to his son was simple: if you want to see results, spend more time in the gym.

“We just had one of those man-to-man talks that day after the game,” Chad said.

From that point on, it was almost impossible to keep C.J. out of the YMCA on the east side of Birmingham. He didn’t have a membership, but the staff knew him and let him in anyway, so he and a friend spent almost every summer day in the gym, sweating and playing for hours on end.

Delena would drop him off at 8 a.m. on the way to work and pick him up at 5 p.m. Sometimes, he’d call his aunt who lived down the road to come pick him up early, around 3. The nine-hour days in the gym outnumbered the seven. He spent plenty of time at the gym with his dad, too.

“I was a legit gym rat,” C.J. said.

Chad never really had to tweak his son’s shooting form, but all the hours in the gym, all the repetitions, honed the smooth form and quick release over time. C.J. rarely stops thinking about basketball now. He changed his major to communications because he wants to be a television analyst in the future. That deep love of the game dates back to that sixth-grade year.

“Every night I used to be up in the bed shooting the ball up in the air,” C.J. said.

He began playing AAU ball in seventh grade and started for every team he was on from that point through his high school years.

Instead of averaging three points, he scored in bunches, often three points at a time.

The Breakout

If you arrive to Bud Walton Arena early enough, you’ll catch C.J. going through the same pre-game shooting routine he’s used since he was a junior in high school.

He begins the warm-up by shooting 3-pointers, moving around the arc from corner to wing to top of the key to the other wing and finally the corner opposite where he began. The math never changes. Fifteen makes from each spot around the perimeter followed by 10 mid-range shots and some long 2-point jumpers. He’s something a perfectionist.

“If I start missing, I’ll start over,” C.J. said. “I hate missing.”

A true shooter’s mentality. That’s what Arkansas is counting on him being this season.

The Razorbacks attempted the fewest 3-pointers in the SEC a year ago and have to replace the graduated Dusty Hannahs, a player who managed to crack the school’s career top-10 list for 3-pointers made despite playing only two years.

Arkansas has Daryl Macon, one of the most talented scorers in the nation and a top-notch perimeter shooter. Fellow senior guards Jaylen Barford and Anton Beard have proven they can be capable 3-point shooters, but neither have the natural shot or upside C.J. does.

Last year, in limited playing time, he hit 12 of 24 3-pointers. He’s shown signs of packing a scoring punch, of being the kind of player who can get hot and change the momentum of a game when he’s feeling it.

He’s the player Hannahs thinks Arkansas fans should watch out for.

“I just think he has zero conscience and (a lot of) confidence while also being an elite athlete that can rebound the ball,” Hannahs said.

Hannahs took C.J. under his wing during their one year of shared time, showing him tricks of the trade. While the sophomore doesn’t possess Hannahs’ ballhandling ability and knack for creating his own shot, his frame and athleticism give him a physical floor the new member of the Memphis Hustle doesn’t possess.

Using those two attributes will be vital. There is, after all, more to basketball than scoring.

He’ll have to continue to work on his handle and try to develop some playmaking over time. He should be able to make an impact on the glass. Last season, rarely got off the bench once the calendar rolled around to 2017, in part because of the team’s crowded, veteran backcourt but also because of defensive deficiencies rooted in playing zone all through high school.

“Presently, he’s doing a terrific job on defense,” Cleveland said in early October. “And he’s only going to get better. His upside is huge.”

Even with C.J.’s playing time limited, Delena made the eight-hour drive up to Fayetteville close to 10 times last season. The basketball games were an excuse. Mostly, she wanted to spend time with her son.

They’d hang out at her hotel or in his dorm room after games. The next day, they’d make a trip to the mall, where she would make sure he had everything he needed on a little shopping spree. Then they’d head to a restaurant, Olive Garden was a popular choice, for some more catching up.

She made it to both exhibition games this year. The games are much more interesting this time around with C.J. locked in as a big part of the rotation.

He’s still undoubtedly under-the-radar across the SEC and national landscape, but he’s used to it by now. It’s driven him, from the unending trips and countless hours at the YMCA to prove he was worthy of a starting spot in sixth grade, to the timely scoring outbursts in the humble Central Park Christian gym.

Now, the venue is Bud Walton Arena. Now, he’s one of the most important pieces on a team hungry to make noise in March, his ceiling directly tied to how much of a racket is possible.

“I don’t feel like I’ve proven anybody wrong,” C.J. said. “Not yet. Not until I show it out here in the SEC.”

He’ll have that chance this season.

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