Jonquel Jones got tough through her travels, and she’s taking it out on the WNBA

Jonquel Jones

Jonquel Jones

By Ava Wallace –Washington Post 

Her first international move was in the middle of ninth grade, when she left her native Freeport, Bahamas, to play at Riverdale Baptist. She was a strong-willed teenager signing up to live nearly 1,000 miles from her parents and leaving the only home she had known in pursuit of basketball.

Her second international move came nearly a decade later, when she opted to spend this past WNBA offseason playing in South Korea. This time, Jonquel Jones traversed almost 7,000 miles and through a gaping cultural chasm but came away with a league championship and an MVP award.

“It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve done as a basketball player,” she said.

Jones, a former standout at George Washington, has traveled great distances for the sake of her career. This past week, she received her first WNBA Eastern Conference player of the week award, another peak in what is shaping up to be an explosive season for the 23-year-old forward-center for the Connecticut Sun.

Jones was the picture of untapped potential at the beginning of the season, her second in the league. Her international play was impressive enough that the WNBA’s general managers voted her the player most likely to have a breakout season in a preseason poll. 

So far, they have been right. She is making a name for herself not as a flashy shooter or a shrewd offensive leader but as a dominating physical presence on rebounds.

Jones, who in 2016 became the first player from GW to be selected in the first round of the WNBA draft (sixth overall), has become nearly unbeatable on the backboards. She leads the league with an average of 11.7 rebounds, well ahead of the next player on the list, three-time Olympic gold medalist Sylvia Fowles (10.3).

On May 28, the 6-foot-6 Jones willed Connecticut to its first win of the season with 23 points and 21 rebounds against Chicago, becoming just the 13th player in the history of the league to record at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. The performance, in the Sun’s fifth game, made her just the third player in league history to have multiple 20-rebound outings in one season (she had 20 in the season opener).

She followed the performance with other big games. On June 17 against the Minnesota Lynx, Jones had 16 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and four steals as Connecticut handed the Lynx their first loss of the season, 98-93. After opening the season 1-5, the Sun had won five straight before a 96-82 loss to the Dallas Wings on Sunday. Jones also leads her team with 15.5 points per game.

Her success is a testament to determination, self-belief, timing and a distinctly Korean approach to basketball.

“I’m better conditioning-wise because of Korea. I’ve gotten stronger because of how we lifted over there,” Jones said. “And I think mentally, I’ve just gotten tough just going to a country where the language isn’t English, a place where practices were really intense and then you make it all the way through and walk away with a championship. All that stuff is momentum.”

Physically, playing in South Korea was challenging. The game isn’t necessarily more physical or intense than it is here in the United States, but the practices sure are. 

Jones ran more in practices than she has in her life, to a point that she “just didn’t understand.” Practices were twice a day, every day, even during the season, in addition to weightlifting sessions demanding enough to sap anyone’s willpower, though they did build strength.

Mentally, playing in South Korea also was challenging. There was one other native English speaker on her Korean team, D.C. native Monique Currie (Bullis), a former member of the Washington Mystics who now plays for the San Antonio Stars.

“In the U.S., if you want to get potato chips, you go out and get potato chips,” Jones said. “In Korea, you can’t speak the language. You can’t read the language. You lose a lot of your independence in relying on the translator and things like that.

But Jones returned to the United States tougher. She averaged 14.1 minutes in her rookie season but knew her workload would increase after Sun frontcourt-mate Chiney Ogwumike suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury in China in November. With Ogwumike out for the season, Jones’s minutes have ballooned to 30.0 per game.

A stronger player and a starter this season, Jones is more confident. Rebounding had always been her forte — she led the nation in rebounding as a senior at GW — but now she plays as if every rebound belongs to her.

She has enhanced her scoring touch as well, ranking 10th in the WNBA in field goal percentage at 51.9.

And though Jones is far from a league championship and MVP nod in the United States, she did achieve one goal.

“As I started my second year,” Jones said, “I just wanted people to look and be able to say, ‘She’s gotten better. Wow.’ ”

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