With a Nerf hoop parked in Kogan Plaza, she looks like the big kid on the playground as she toys with others. Fade away jumper, easy. Try to shoot over her, her arms wave like a helicopter, stopping anyone and anything.
Charismatic like always, she walks around and hands out fliers for Colonials Invasion. Some recognize her, stopping for a quick conversation or just giving her a dap or a high five. Others don’t know what’s going on, but still stop and stare in wide-eyed wonder.
The Freeport, Bahamas native Jonquel Jones is 6-foot-4-inches and seems much taller than that. Her smile is as wide as her body is tall. She is also a preseason All-American and is projected to be a top-five pick in April’s WNBA draft.
Her team is in the nation’s top 25. They went to the NCAA Tournament last year while GW’s men’s team did not, but the women averaged 880 fans per home game while the men averaged 3,397.
“It would mean a lot for us to get the gym sold out and to have more people come here watching us win,” Jones said.
Entering her final season, JJ has found her way in Foggy Bottom. She went to powerhouse Riverdale Baptist High School under coach Diane Richardson, who became her legal guardian and nicknamed her “Spidey” even before Jones’ national profile shot up with her frame during her senior year. She spent her freshman year at Clemson, but found it too big, and came back to the D.C.-area to attend GW, where Richardson had become an assistant coach.
Hit the Quan, hit the Quan, hit the Quan, hit the Quan/ I said get down low and swing your arm/ I said get down low and hit the Quan
When it’s her team’s turn to put on their dance at Colonials Invasion, JJ is right in the front. She hits the Quan (as does head coach Jonathan Tsipis). Later, the men do a dunk contest. In her first season, JJ dunked too. But she doesn’t like to dunk in games.
Richardson recalled coaching Jones and projected No. 1 overall pick Breanna Stewart on an All-American team when the players were in high school. Richardson told them that, when they got a breakaway, one of them should dunk and delight the Final Four crowd around them.
“And of course we get a breakaway. The two of them passed to each other, now you, now you, and they pass. They’re way ahead of the pack. Pass, pass, pass, pass and at the last minute Breanna laid it up. I was like, ‘You two … I’m getting both of you off.’ But she’s never looked for the limelight. She’s always deferred to somebody else,” Richardson said.
Same thing this time around.
“She doesn’t ever want to be part of that seeming to be more important than the team’s goals,” Tsipis said. “There’s that part of her humility that it’s a great match, and others where it is a fault. And we talk about that. She can do certain things at a higher level than anyone else on the court.”
They were like ‘JONQUEL JONES AHH!’
The team went on a trip to the Bahamas last Thanksgiving. They competed, and won the Junkanoo Jam. Jones was the tournament MVP and her reputation on her home island only grew. Even in high school, Richardson recalls the Bahamian minister of tourism flying to see Jones play.
“They had programs for her. It’s funny because she didn’t want any part of that. ‘Noooo.’ They were like ‘JONQUEL JONES AHH!’ We were going to different events and people were making a big deal of it. ‘I love it, I love it here but all of this press stuff,’” Richardson said.
She’s had to get used to the press this year. Interview after interview kept her in the Colonials Champions Club for the longest time on the Colonials’ media day this year.
Can she handle it? Tsipis coached college and now-WNBA star Skylar Diggins in her senior year at Notre Dame. Sometimes managing Diggins’ time, including when she could sign autographs, got “overwhelming,” he said.
“You still want them tangible, but it can’t control their life. I think with JJ that part would be she would stay out there. We would still be in Freeport,” Tsipis said.
JJ has become more comfortable with the press and with throngs of fans around her, just as she has become more comfortable with herself and how she is seen by her peers. Over the summer, Jones decided to change her style.
She described the change as more feminine, but she worried how her peers would react.
“One of the parties that I went to was, one of my friends had a 21st birthday party. It was like an all-white party. It was like my first time really getting back into my groove in terms of dressing differently. I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so nervous.’ I haven’t worn makeup and lipstick and all of this stuff for as long as I was in high school and I had go to this party and like, you know, I was just so nervous,” Jones said.
Jones said she went to the party with teammate Lauren Chase, who supported her and told her she looked beautiful. The people around her supported her, too.
“I worried what they would think and you know, it wasn’t even an issue,” Jones said.
We gon’ be alright/ Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.
JJ is a big hip-hop fan. She’s also a low-key rapper, but she wouldn’t want to put out a mixtape because she feels like the music industry forces people to compromise themselves too much.
Her favorite artists these days are J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Her favorite songs from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are “Alright” and “For Sale (Interlude).” She’s not a fan of “King Kunta” though, which is the album’s braggadocios anthem. “Now I run the game, got the whole world talking, King Kunta,” Lamar raps in the chorus.
“Alright” is one of her favorite songs from To Pimp a Butterfly. “We gon’ be alright/ Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.” It’s the song of struggle, but the anthem of acceptance, the track of overcoming. This is more of Jones’ anthem too.
“She wakes up with that smile. It’s just infectious. Some of the kids when they were banged up this fall, they think it’s the end of the world, but I think having somebody can sit there, who’s not a coach and can say ‘Everything is going to be alright,’ is worth its weight in gold,” Tsipis said.
Oct. 10, 2015 – Justice or Else! Million Man March, 20th Anniversary
Headed back from a Black Men’s Initiative general body meeting on the Vern, JJ was prompted to freestyle a bit on the shuttle back to Foggy Bottom. This year JJ says she found friends outside of the basketball world as she’s gotten more involved with the Black Student Union and BMI.
She identifies as both black and Caribbean. She is not African-American, but still identifies with African-American issues.
“Even though I’m not in terms of definitions or culture or nationality, African-American, I’m still benefiting and I still feel the issues, because at the same time even though I might not identify as it, from an outward perspective, people looking at me, they put me in that box and that’s where I am,” Jones said.
The criminal justice major can talk at length about self-identification. At times, it’s tough not to think about it.
“Just being a tall person in general with dreadlocks. When I have regular clothes on, it’s sad but it’s the truth. Some nights I’m walking and someone might be walking down the street and see me at night time and get nervous. You know what I’m saying? I understand. That’s why I always say I can’t disassociate from these issues,” she said.
A small, black wristband on her left arm – her lone accessory aside from simple stud earrings – remains on during practice. It’s from the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March last year. Jones enjoyed the event because anyone could participate in the peaceful march.
Draft Day, April, 2016
Jones’ highest projection lands her at fourth overall, which would place her with the Atlanta Dream, if all things held constant. But that is months away. Jones used to look at the projections, but for now, she’s just happy to be in the discussion.
“Why should I hurt my head and worry about it, instead of just saying, play your best and when the time comes whoever takes you takes you. You’re there,” she said. “Projections are good because it says, ‘Dang you’re going high that means the chances of me not going at all are extremely low.’ You know what I’m saying?”