Jones breaks into Duke lineup as she continues to learn
An inch here, an inch there, a bounce here, a roll there and Alexis Jones’ story could be far different.
David Jones knows that.
From his wheelchair, where he’s been since becoming paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a car accident six years ago, Alexis Jones’ father is thankful that he is the only one in the car who suffered serious injuries.
“It could have cost them their lives,” David Jones said. “That’s something I’ll always be thankful for. I’ll always thank God that nothing happened to the kids. I don’t think I would have been able to live that down.”
Instead of seeing her athletic career ruined when her father hit a patch of black ice and the car flipped multiple times on a Sweetwater, Texas, highway that morning, Alexis Jones finds herself starting as a freshman for Duke’s unbeaten women’s basketball team.
David Jones taught her basketball. He coached her until the accident on Easter weekend 2007 when he was driving Alexis and some of her teammates to practice.
He still teaches the game, only now he’s instructing from his wheelchair rather than demonstrating on-court drills.
His ability to persevere and not give up in the face of such a dramatic shift in lifestyle continues to offer a lesson to Alexis.
“Anything can happen at any point of time in your life,” Alexis Jones said. “It taught me that you have to make changes in life and keep pushing and not go backward.”
Alexis Jones was a seventh-grader when the wreck occurred. Her younger brother, Andrew, also was in the car.
All the passengers, Alexis said, were asleep, so she doesn’t know exactly why they were spared from injury. She did say they were wearing seat belts.
David Jones was in the process of moving his family from Midland, Texas, to the Dallas area. The move to a larger metropolitan area exposed Alexis, and now Andrew, to a higher level of coaching and basketball talent.
For Alexis, it would offer a glimpse into something unexpected that one day would dictate her college choice.
In her eighth-grade season at a new school and with her dad unable to coach her for the first time, she put his lessons into action.
“I just followed everything that he had taught me and kept it going instead of just slouching back and not being able to get better in basketball,” Alexis said. “I probably could have been the same player every year and not change.
“It pushed me harder to get better. I just did everything that he taught me when I was younger.”
Change brings on improvement
As a freshman in 2009 at McArthur High School in Irving, Texas, Jones found herself in an unfamiliar setting. She had talented teammates, such as current Baylor guard Odyssey Sims, and McArthur eventually would win the 2011 Class 5A state championship.
But she was out of the comfort zone that had surrounded her in Midland, where her father had coached her and everyone knew her game.
Yet she discovered something. That unfamiliarity actually made her a better player in the long run.
“I was playing decent, but I wasn’t playing to the potential that I can play,” Jones said. “The next year it all changed.”
According to some recruiting analysts, Jones became the nation’s No. 1 recruit at guard by the time she was junior. She narrowed her list to Duke, Baylor, Texas, Penn State and Tennessee.
Sims already was starring at Baylor, where she and Brittney Griner brought the Bears the NCAA championship this past April.
But Jones sought a different route, choosing Duke and Coach Joanne P. McCallie.
“I wanted to get out of the state,” Jones said. “I wanted to be somewhere where I wasn’t going to feel comfortable right away. I wanted to kind of feel uncomfortable my freshman year coming in. I wanted to work. I wanted to come to a school that was actually going to make me work.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here to Duke. Coming here and having your freshman year not knowing what to expect from anything, I felt that was a better experience to me than staying at Baylor.”
Finding the right setting
Getting to know Alexis and her family in the recruiting process, McCallie wasn’t surprised when that answer was repeated to her.
“That defines Lex,” McCallie said. “She’s kind of an old soul young person who is not afraid to try things and to want to be better. She understands it’s not about perfection. It’s about aspiring.”
Perhaps watching her father struggle for nearly two years with his paralysis before adjusting and resuming his coaching impacted Alexis Jones.
“I could have easily sat around the house and done nothing, not trying to do my life or get back to the things I loved,” David Jones said. “I wanted to let her understand that even though you have some setbacks, you can overcome them and make yourself a better person. I think she has.”
This season for No. 4 Duke (16-0), Jones has started each games. On a team that also includes three junior starters and a sophomore, she’s averaging 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
David Jones, only able to see her play in person in a couple of early season games, monitors Alexis by watching games online and on television.
“After games, she’ll text me,” David Jones said. “She’s growing up. I’ve got a feeling she’s going to continue to blossom as the season progresses.”
McCallie and her staff are providing the high level of coaching Alexis said she wanted.
“I have been taught a lot,” Alexis said. “Going someplace else, I don’t think I would have been taught as much as I have been here. Coach P has been doing a great job of teaching me, but she’ll also punish me here and then say, ‘All right, now you’ve got to do this and do that.’
“So it’s more of she’s giving me a lesson by showing me what to do and letting me play. I like the fact that she’s pushing me to be a better player every single game and practice.”
With juniors Chelsea Gray, Haley Peters and Tricia Liston in the starting lineup, as well as 2012 national freshman of the year Elizabeth Williams, Alexis Jones isn’t always as assertive as McCallie likes.
“She’s been in deferred mode sometimes,” McCallie said. “What we’re saying to her is, ‘That’s great, but you are a player. Let’s go.’ She’s so athletic. She can get six to seven defensive rebounds a game. She has to set her sights on getting some concrete things and just let her offensive game flow from that.”
Back in Texas, David Jones said Alexis’ starting role came quicker than he hoped.
“I’m real proud of her for working hard to get in there,” David Jones said. “That was one of her goals, to get in the starting lineup. I’m really proud of her. It takes you a while to get adjusted to it. I think she’s coming along.”
Just like her father demonstrated by resuming his coaching career after that accident that could have been even more tragic.