Dillon Jones: Down-to-Earth Heliocentrism
The Weber State star has dominated the early portion of the season with the ball in his hands, but what would it look at the next level if he had to give it up?
Like every sports league in existence, the NBA revolves around its stars. Sure, the dominant teams, such as the 90s Bulls, 80s Lakers, and 2010s Warriors, are remembered as franchises, but none of those teams are “those teams” without Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Stephen Curry.
That’s what’s made the NBA’s gradual transition towards heliocentrism so unsurprising. As the numbers continue to favor offenses that stripe deep shots and clobber the rim, a higher premium than ever has been placed on getting the ball into the hands of the best players for as much time as reasonably possible.
Through the lens of the NBA draft, the most valuable players can radically tilt the game on either end of the floor. Transcendent defensive prospects that change the calculus of an offense are worth their weight in gold, while potential on-ball star creators at the NBA are the most coveted archetype known to basketball kind.
Not every player who’s the end-all, be-all of their college or professional team can be the sun that stirs the stars for their offense. You can count on less than two hands the number of players who are worthy of completely controlling an NBA offense, making evaluating players doing that for their college teams much more cloudy.
If a player used to dominating offensive possessions won’t get to do that at the next level, what role could they have? How adaptable is their game? Is it even worth taking them in the draft if they can’t fit into a smaller role? What would a heliocentric player that could lessen his role even look like?
Well, it would look a lot like Dillon Jones.
Weber State’s Solar System
A player rarely serves as a team’s north star from the first time they step on the court. That’s true of Dillon Jones. Jones entered as a freshman at Weber State and only started two games that season, instead serving as a sparkplug off the bench for the Wildcats. Since that first year, Jones has started 67 of the 69 games he’s played and has slowly but surely grown into a ball-dominant role.
After flirting with coming out for the 2023 NBA draft, Jones returned for a fourth year at Weber State to lead the team to glory and improve his draft stock. Through the first fourteen games of the season, both look to be coming true, as the Wildcats look like the best team in the Big Sky, and Jones has built upon last year’s scalding season.
Jones is tearing through opposing defenses with the ball firmly in his hands this year. He’s putting up 19.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game while only turning the ball over 2.5 times per contest. Combined with his sterling shooting percentages of 54.7% from two-point range, 39.1% on 3.3 deep attempts a game, and 82.8% from the line on 6.6 attempts per game, you’ve got a certified giant handling the rock.
As the main metronome for the Wildcats, Jones has had his share of possessions falling into a few specific categories. Per Synergy, Jones has predominantly run pick-and-roll as a ball-handler, attacked spot-up opportunities, gotten out in transition, and picked his spots for isolation opportunities.
Jones is a bigger ball-handler at 6’6”, which gives him a distinct advantage when orchestrating the pick-and-roll. He’s not a fantastic vertical athlete, but he has a good first step that gets him into the lane and plays into one of his biggest strengths as a player: his driving. It’s a treat to go through all of Jones’s finishes this year, as he feels comfortable driving in either direction and finishing through all sorts of feeble defensive attempts.
Jones is a dangerous driver, no matter how he wants to play it. He can burst toward the basket, slow down his dribble to get the defense on his back, freeze his defender with a crossover before pulling up to shoot, or set his teammates up for a score on the move. Per Synergy, Jones is shooting 62.5% on shots at the rim, which is a great clip for a player with his volume and attention.
It’s a sublime mix of footwork, force, and playing the angles for Jones. His handle has just enough pop to get him separation in the pick-and-roll, while his first step can get him downhill against lazy contests. The versatility that Jones displays getting into his drives should stick at the next level, given how many ways he can get downhill.
The cap on Jones’s heliocentric ceiling at the college level is his in-between game. Since he can get to the cup, dish on the move, and shoot at such a high clip, there hasn’t been a need for Jones to flesh out his floater or mid-range game fully. It’s led to a 39.4% clip from mid-range dribble jumpers, which isn’t awful but not good enough to demand attention.
This is a major issue for players who can’t space the floor. Luckily for Jones, he’s worked himself into being at least a capable shooter. That may sound like I’m underselling that he’s hitting 39.1% of his 3.3 attempts from deep a game, but in his past two seasons of comparable volume, Jones hit 35.4% and 30.3% of his shots from beyond the arc.
Jones has a clean, compact stroke that he can get into quickly. He isn’t a dribble-jumper destroyer, but Jones can do damage off any other action. He rarely runs off screens, but his spot-up shooting and fades to the corner are consistent in mechanics and results.
The most encouraging number for Jones, per Synergy, is that he’s shooting 42.5% on spot-up threes on 40 attempts this year. Given how unlikely it is for Jones to develop into the type of ball dominator who wouldn’t get many spot-up looks, he must be a threat in other contexts at the NBA level. If he can maintain these shooting numbers all season, it’ll raise his floor on offense in a way few other skills can.
Alongside his stellar shooting, Jones has fully embraced his role as the initiator for the Wildcats and has improved over his career as a passer. As it stands now, Jones almost has a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio on high usage and as the focal fulcrum of the Weber State offense, which speaks to his passing chops and ability to command a team.
Most of Jones’s assists have come out of the pick-and-roll but in one particular facet. Alex Tew, Weber State’s starting center, is a reliable screen-setter and inside finisher but not a true roll threat. That’s led to Jones putting pressure on a defense with his dribbling and quickly spraying the ball out to one of the many waiting shooters on the wings.
Jones’s passing shines through even when he isn’t handling the ball in screening situations. He doesn’t hold the ball for too long on the perimeter, keeps his head up when driving into the paint, and has the length to hit difficult angles around lanky perimeter defenders.
The cherry on top of Jones’s passing is his penchant for pseudo-no-lookers, which comes from his advanced ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes due to his extra attention.
Again, given how few futures there are where Jones is a heliocentric star, his passing can’t just stem from controlling possession. His ability to hit cutters on the move and to make the simple read to an open shooter is the type of connective play that will serve him well at the next level in whatever capacity he plays.
A Dip into the Defense
Like most players who carry a heavy load on offense, there are some issues to monitor with Jones on defense. He has solid positional size at 6’6” and a sturdy, strong base at 235 pounds, but there are both hurdles and glimmers that pockmark Jones’s defensive game film.
On one hand, Jones isn’t as bad of an athlete as he’s often made out to be. Sure, he has zero dunks and one block on the season, which aren’t great indicators of his vertical impact, but he’s spry for his size and has good upper and lower body strength. That helps him when he matches up against smaller players, as he does have just enough foot speed to stay with them.
The biggest draw for Jones’s defense comes in how he generates turnovers. He’s had at least a 2.7% steal percentage in all four years at Weber State. Those numbers come from his fast hands, advanced reading of the game, and knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s not one to rip the ball from an opposing player, but it’s hard to argue against the numbers and the film that Jones isn’t a smart team defender who consistently generates steals.
Another feather in Jones’s defensive cap is his defensive rebounding. Curiously, Jones shows his vertical pop most on the defensive glass. He has quick reflexes towards the ball, which helps him corral short misses. He also has the girth to throw his body around and crash against bigs that aren’t expecting him to be as physical. He’s had a defensive rebounding percentage of over 30% in his three high-usage seasons, which also speaks to his ability to scale up to the NBA level.
Where Jones can excel at the next level is as a connective team defender. He has the hands and mind to help keep a defensive humming but shouldn’t be relied on to do much more than that, given his athletic limitations and tweener size.
Jones’s perimeter defense leaves a bit to be desired on-ball, as he doesn’t quite have the physical profile nor attributes to knock players off their spots. Smaller ball-handlers can skate by him, and bigger players can take him down into the post where, despite his strength, he can’t quite match their length.
It’s worth considering what Jones’s defense could look like when he isn’t a number one option, as, like most heliocentric stars, he tends to expend less effort on the defensive end. If he can start to play more consistent on-ball defense, then there’s some hope of upside for Jones. He will, at minimum, not take away from a team’s defensive game plan due to his reflexes and reach.
The Dimming of a Star?
Before getting into any fit at the next level, appreciating how awesome of a player Dillon Jones is for Weber State is worth appreciating. He stayed loyal to the program in the face of transfer scuttlebutt, improved multiple skills each season, and will likely finish the season in the Top 10 for both career points and assists in Wildcats history.
Jones has adapted into the ball-dominant player he is today, but that doesn’t mean that all or even most of his appeal comes from how he controls possessions. He’s still a good spot-up shooter from deep, makes good passing reads in any context, and is an opportunistic team defender. All of these will help him earn minutes.
Even historically, when considering the archetype of player that Jones fits into as a do-it-all forward, few players of his size and production went on to do the same at the NBA level. I ran a query of some of Jones’s seminal skills on BartTorvik (usage, true shooting, assist, and defensive rebounding percentage) to find some similar stars of the past.
It’s an eclectic collection of intriguing players who’ve hit the same benchmarks that Jones has this year. On one end, you have clear NBA talents like Ben Simmons and Kyle Anderson, who did it when they were younger. Conversely, you have clear professionals like Cameron Krutwig, Trevion Williams, and Jake Stephens, none of whom have yet carved out an NBA role.
So, where does Jones fall into this? He’s more athletic than Kurtwig, is more of a deep shooter than Williams, and is more versatile size-wise than Stephens. He’s nowhere near the defensive talent that Ben Simmons was/is, but he offers a much more developed and robust shooting outlook than the former Tigers star.
Statistically, the closest match for Jones is Kyle Anderson, who may offer the best path for Jones moving forward. Both are stocky wings, skilled passers, and solid shooters from deep in college who had their warts on the defensive end. Above all, both were highly intelligent and reactive players who could make up for their deficiencies with their smart play on both ends.
However, that doesn’t mean that Jones is on the way to being a carbon copy of Anderson. While “Slo-Mo” has a unique pace, Jones is more of a bowling ball blasting down the lane using his burst. Jones is also a few inches shorter, which takes away some of his positional value on the wing.
On the other hand, Jones is still a more proven shooter than Anderson. Anderson’s gaudy 48.3% from deep came on just 1.6 attempts per game, a fluke that bears out in his NBA career 33.8% from three-point range. Jones has been shooting from double that volume for two years and has shown a more consistent and quicker shooting stroke this year, making him a more viable floor spacer.
Another positive shooting indicator for Jones is that he gets to the line more often than Anderson and hits them at a higher clip. When combined with his better quickness and defensive rebounding percentage, a few places help Jones compensate for his lack of size and vertical pop.
None of this means that Jones will be the same player as Anderson or anything close; on the contrary, I expect the two to look completely different due to their play styles. Instead, Anderson offers Jones a streamlined path from a ball-dominant wing to an NBA role player. By making the same adjustments, Jones should be able to carve out the same lengthy career Anderson has in the NBA.
Especially in a draft class like this one that’s full of players with clear strengths and weaknesses, having a projectable path to an NBA role is crucial for silencing Jones’ critics. He may not be the same heliocentric star he is at Weber State in the NBA, but he should be the type of player who stars in his role and comes together with others to assemble a gleaming constellation of stars on an NBA court.