DERRICK JONES JR. HOPING FOR BREAKOUT SEASON

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On Heat roster with many of the same faces, ‘Airplane Mode’ is working to show something new.

There aren’t too many unknowns when it comes to the Miami Heat’s roster.

After all, 14 players are returning from last season. But one player on the team who does have some unknowns surrounding his game is Derrick Jones Jr.

Jones, a 6-foot-7 and 200-pound wing player, has appeared in 52 regular-season games over his two-year NBA career after going undrafted out of UNLV in 2016. He possesses elite athleticism, with a vertical leap that was once measured at 48 inches and earned him the runner-up spot in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game’s Slam Dunk Contest and the nickname “Airplane Mode.”

Jones has averaged 4.4 points over the first two seasons in the league and has logged more minutes in the G League than he has in the NBA. But the 21-year-old believes he has the potential to have a long and successful NBA career.

“I believe that I have a whole lot more to go. I’m only 21 years old,” Jones said, with the Heat set to hold its annual media day Monday at AmericanAirlines Arena in advance of Tuesday’s start of training camp at FAU. “My game is not perfect at all. As much as I can work on my game, that’s what I’m going to do.”

That’s been Jones’ mentality since his first NBA team, the Phoenix Suns, waived him in the middle of last season. That allowed the Heat to sign him to a two-way contract on Dec. 31.

Athleticism, defensive versatility, and untapped potential drew Miami to Jones. When he wasn’t playing in the G League as one of the Sioux Falls Skyforce’s best players, he averaged 3.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in 14 regular-season games (eight starts) with the Heat.

Miami was intrigued by what it saw, rewarding Jones with a standard two-year NBA contract that includes a guaranteed $1.5 million salary for this season. In other words, Jones is pretty much a lock to make the Heat’s regular-season roster because of that investment Miami made in him.

Jones doesn’t take that type of job security for granted.

“As a player, you always want to go into an organization and go to the gym and go into games knowing that the organization and all of your teammates got your back,” Jones said. “That’s exactly how I feel. I feel as comfortable as I can possibly be.”

It showed in this year’s summer league. Just days after signing his new contract with the Heat, Jones displayed signs of an improved offensive game by averaging 21.3 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 41.7 percent shooting from 3-point range in three games as part of the Sacramento circuit before an ankle injury cut his summer league short in Las Vegas.

That offensive efficiency is an encouraging sign for a player whose below average outside shooting was among the biggest things holding him back from finding a consistent role on a team. Jones has shot 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) on 3-pointers over the first two seasons of his NBA career.

“That’s something I’ve been doing a lot,” Jones said when asked how much he’s worked on his outside shot this summer. “These days, if you can’t shoot or play great defense, it’s hard for you to stick in this league.”

Has Jones seen his shot improve since the end of last season?

“I think I have,” he said. “But I guess everybody is going to have to wait until that first game happens and that first 3-point shot goes up.”

With a crowded Heat depth chart at the wing position that includes Dwyane Wade, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder, Jones isn’t guaranteed a spot in the rotation. But he’s fine with whatever role he’s given.

“Whatever my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do,” said Jones, who has put on about 10 pounds since the end of last season to improve his strength. “If it’s guarding the best player, I’m going to do that. If they need me to take shots, I’m going to do that. It doesn’t matter what my team needs me to do, I’m going to get it done.”

And if it calls for a nice dunk, he’s ready for that, too.

“I’m 21 years old,” Jones said with a laugh. “I’m pretty sure my athleticism is going to be there for a good 10, maybe 12 years hopefully.”

By Anthony Chiang, Miami Herald

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