WNBA star rises from the islands to the Sun

Connecticut's Jonquel Jones, center, is fouled by Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, right, as Sylvia Fowles, left, helps on defense in the first half of WNBA action May 26, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut's Jonquel Jones, center, is fouled by Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, right, as Sylvia Fowles, left, helps on defense in the first half of WNBA action May 26, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Mohegan — She found sanctuary in a bathroom stall. Nine hundred miles from home. With no family and friends around. 

That is where it began for Jonquel Jones, the long, lean center for the Connecticut Sun: A bathroom stall in suburban Maryland almost 10 years ago.

She and her family had made the agonizing, yet ultimately necessary, decision to leave home in the Bahamas to pursue the more competitive basketball terrain of the United States. It was September 2008, and Jones, affectionately known as “J.J.” now to her teammates, was a high school freshman. She stood 5-foot-8, nearly a foot shorter than her current 6-foot-6 stature that helped her grab a WNBA record 403 rebounds this season.

She was picked up at the airport in Maryland by her new high school coach and taken straight to practice. It was the first time she’d been to the United States.

“I’m wearing clothes from the Bahamas,” Jones remembered earlier this week as the Sun was preparing for Sunday's home playoff game with Phoenix. “I’ve never been in weather this cold before. I realized I forgot to put on lotion. I’m in the bathroom stall thinking, ‘Oh, God, these girls are going to meet me for the first time and I’m ashy (dry skin).' I stayed in that stall for a very long time.”

Eventually, she emerged. And walked into a gym full of strangers, completely unaware of the lessons and failures ahead and how they’d mold her into a popular, talented and humble professional athlete.

 • • • 

The Jones family didn't experience an epiphany that convinced them that this young woman with the magnetic personality needed to leave Freeport, their hometown of about 45,000 with weather straight from a Corona commercial. Who’d ever willingly leave the Bahamas?

Then there was this: If Jones, 14 at the time, did leave to play basketball, where would she go? Who’d pay for it?

And yet, as Jones grew older, the fact that her hometown had only three indoor courts continued to make the decision more obvious. Young Jonquel had to go.

Enter Diane Richardson, who would become Jones’ coach at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Md., 40 miles south of Baltimore. The family contacted Richardson through a family friend. Little did anyone know how much the lives of Jones and Richardson would parallel.

First, though, logistics: Where would Jones live? Riverdale was a regular high school, not a boarding school. The idea that she could perhaps stay with a host family was considered. But how to facilitate all this? And who would pay the $10,000-per-year tuition?

“I’ve always believed God has placed people in my life for a reason,” Jones said earlier this week, trying to recall the shapes and forms of September 2008, when she arrived in Maryland.

The Richardsons decided to sponsor Jones. She would live with them, and they would pay the tuition. Eventually, the Richardsons became Jones’ legal guardians in the United States.

Diane Richardson used to be Jonquel Jones. Sort of.

Richardson never had to leave the country to chase her dreams. But she moved from hardscrabble Washington, D.C., to suburban Maryland thanks to similar support from someone she hardly knew: a teacher named Norma Trax.

Richardson paid it forward.

And so then came the day Jones was in the bathroom stall, about to practice for the first time in the States, worried about her ashy skin, cold weather and whether she was actually good enough.

By her sophomore year, Jones still was playing junior varsity. That’s right. The WNBA’s single-season rebounding leader wasn’t good enough to play on her high school varsity team through her sophomore year. Riverdale lost in the championship game that year with Jones on the bench.

“I felt really bad,” Jones said. “I wasn’t able to contribute. I remember talking to my coach about what I really needed to do to improve. I tried to get better. That summer, I made a big jump. Failing has helped me out a lot. I think because I don’t look at it as failure, but just a chance to get better.”

Suddenly, the universe began to conspire. Her improvement coincided with a growth spurt. She earned a scholarship to nearby George Washington University.

The Sun drafted her two years ago with the sixth pick overall in the WNBA Draft. After an encouraging rookie season, Jones has exploded in 2017, becoming the third player in league history to have three 20-rebound games and set a league record with 280 defensive rebounds in a season.

She also dunked in the All-Star game.

“The first time I saw her when I walked into training camp, I thought, ‘This girl reminds me of Kevin Durant,’” teammate Jasmine Thomas said, alluding to the Golden State Warriors phenom. “Everything about her, her mannerisms, moves, how she wants to play in her mind, reminded me of Durant. Everyone isn’t given the luxury of being thrown out there as a rookie and told ‘go.’ Last year you saw flashes. This year, there was an opportunity for her with (2016 leading scorer Chiney Ogwumike) out. She was so ready for it. She came here 100 percent ready.”

 • • • 

Jonquel Jones could be the inspiration for some Johnny Cash lyrics: She’s been everywhere, man. From the Bahamas to this past offseason in Korea to now the beaches of Niantic. But with such upheaval, who’d blame her if she were a bit guarded?

Turns out you can’t guard her ... and she’s the least guarded person in our corner of the world.

“She has the will to be successful in the most humble way I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “She’s funny when she doesn’t mean to be. Such a light and airy personality. Any time she walks into the room, you feel better.”

Jones dances for her teammates in the locker room before games. All original material, regardless of the song.

Imagine the image of this tall, striking young woman who often wears her hair up to make her look ever taller. People stare.

“Everywhere we go,” Thomas said. “But she’s so nice about it. That can get pretty annoying, I imagine, not having your own time. People are always stopping her and saying, ‘Do you play basketball?’ She always answers with a smile, takes a picture and signs an autograph.”

And she loves Niantic, where many of the players live during the season. Connecticut isn’t a primary WNBA destination because its lack of city life often leaves players a bit bored on days off. But Jones? It’s like the Bahamas here all over again.

“Whenever I go to the beach in Niantic, it always reminds me of home,” Jones said. “The water, being able to be on the beach and the pace of life here reminds me of home. I have no problem staying in Connecticut for the rest of my career. I know a lot of people don’t like being here because there’s not a lot of stuff to do. But for me, it’s perfect. Island life is slow, too, but honestly, this is more than what island life has.”

Jones, like fellow Bahamian Buddy Hield, a guard for the Sacramento Kings, has exalted status back home. They’ve had red carpets rolled out for them. And neither has hit their 25th birthday yet.

“If someone had told me I was going to do this so fast, I would have thought they were delusional or something,” Jones said. "I definitely didn’t see this coming. Growth is normally slower than that.”

m.dimauro@theday.com

Connecticut's Jonquel Jones (35) and Atlanta's Elizabeth Williams jump center to open the WNBA season for both teams on May 13, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut's Jonquel Jones (35) and Atlanta's Elizabeth Williams jump center to open the WNBA season for both teams on May 13, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones blocks a shot attempt by Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike in WNBA action on June 27, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. Los Angeles held off a late Connecticut rally to hold on for the 87-79 victory. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones blocks a shot attempt by Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike in WNBA action on June 27, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. Los Angeles held off a late Connecticut rally to hold on for the 87-79 victory. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones splits the defense of the Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne and Krystal Thomas in the second half of WNBA action on July 8, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones splits the defense of the Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne and Krystal Thomas in the second half of WNBA action on July 8, 2017, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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