For most my life I thought I would be able to escape the trappings of a life built around superstition. My father is the most logical man I know; my older brother falls in the same quadrant. But my mother could not be more attuned to signs and coincidences, to fate and faith. I am the last link in the chain, so I figured it’d only be a matter of time before I confirmed my own suspicion that a servitude to mystic semiotics is an inheritable trait. I always was a momma’s boy.
My tentative relationship with the supernatural reached a weird zenith, quite logically if also a little weirdly, during the 2012 NBA Draft. Perry Jones III was freefalling down the draft board, as all the reporters and draftologists had predicted. Apparently his reticence on the court during his two years at Baylor—a dazzling moment or stretch of moments; longer stretches of self-conscious invisibility—had induced a parallel reticence in NBA executives. Or maybe it was the word around the league, amorphous but all the more menacing for it, that Jones wouldn’t last five years because of some previously undisclosed knee issue. Here was a ticking time bomb, a player whose hindrances cast a long shadow over his potential as a transcendent NBA player. Teams just didn’t want to take the risk.
They didn’t want to take the risk 10 years ago, either.
Qyntel Woods was a top-five lottery talent in 2002. Everyone agreed. He was the first “next Tracy McGrady”, which makes sense, considering that McGrady was already 22 when Qyntel declared for the draft. Surely the next McGrady couldn’t have arrived any sooner. It’s hard to embrace the next when we were just getting settled in with the original of the species. But Woods’ stock took a significant dip by draft night. Maybe it was his attitude. Maybe it was the junior college stigma at the time, with JuCo trailblazers like Kedrick Brown ruining it for everyone thereafter. Whatever the case, he fell to the 21st pick, and the Portland Trail Blazers.
And so a decade later, watching Perry Jones III’s descent, I felt an alien rush of revelation. I had become a messenger of a 10-year prophecy. Jones was to be picked 21st; he would begin the cycle anew as a tale of redemption, only this time with a more fortunate timeline. He would be the redeemer of Woods’ ill-fated career, a decade on, a world different.
Fixating on imaginary career narratives informed by sheer coincidence isn’t a good look. Jared Sullinger, a fellow prospect who had seen his stock plummet due to medical red flags, was selected 21st. And by the time Jones was picked up the Oklahoma City Thunder seven spots later, I couldn’t tell if I was throwing up my hands in apprehension or relief.
Being compared to T-Mac is the most generous backhanded compliment a basketball player can receive. The comparison acknowledges that its recipient has the completely unfair competitive edge of good genes. It acknowledges the systems in play that transmit the perception of effortlessness and natural ability to the player; namely, the ability to jump higher, accelerate faster, and process the floor quicker than any of his peers. But the comparison also suggests that at any moment, the player’s talent and promise can soften or implode; that there is something loose or missing in this particular machine that will inevitably leave the ideal incomplete and the actual in shambles.
Tracy McGrady’s vice was a notoriously poor work ethic. It was brought to public consciousness as early as his rookie season in 1998 when Darrell Walker, McGrady’s first NBA coach, issued disparaging comments about his 18-year-old star to the Toronto press, and as recently as 2011 when his former coach Jeff Van Gundy made a joke about how much practice he had at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Though, to T-Mac’s credit, he probably skipped out on most of Van Gundy’s practices because of the multiple career-threatening injuries he sustained as a Houston Rocket.
Jones’ problem was similarly clear, if no less infuriating: he would intersperse flashes of unfathomable potential with a prolonged stretch of invisibility. His high school YouTube mixtapes had tantalizing footage of a 6’11” player running his own fast break, crossing up vulnerable guards and gliding his way to an easy dunk. He had perfect technique on his turnaround fadeaways and was a team player capable of making a drive and dish look like a gift from God. But he was not always that, or was not that quite often enough. He was clearly limiting himself on the court despite the entire universe demanding that he play up to the idealized version of Perry Jones III we had constructed. He was holding back. The question was why.
As it turns out, he might’ve done it to save his future in the NBA.
Maybe Jones’ passivity in college was less a reflection of his character and more a way to preserve his body until he had the resources to find solutions.
Jones worked out at the Peak Performance Project (P3) in Santa Barbara, California during the pre-draft process. Marcus Elliott, M.D., the founder and director of P3, was astonished with the results of those workouts and wasn’t shy about handing out superlatives. In the database of athletes he’s tested, Elliott claims Jones is in the top-five in a list that includes NFL veterans and Olympic sprinters.
“[The] combination of length and elasticity and power he has is incredibly rare,” said Elliott. “He creates so much force—more than any other long player you’re going to find. And that makes his force movements that much more dangerous.”
In basketball, force is predominantly created from the ankles, knees, and hips. The knee issues that scared more than four-fifths of the league on draft night were due to Perry subjecting his knee to relentless and excessive force. Elliott’s objective was to then alter Jones’ movement mechanics, transferring some of that force from the knees to the hips, which would split the burden and allow Jones to play at full capacity without worrying about his knee.
Part of the training, of course, was getting Perry to full capacity. “The first day, he probably got his ass kicked harder than he ever had in a training environment,” Elliott said. “But you could just see how he responded to that. He did the work. I really think that this work ethic he showed us out here over six weeks or so when we had him locked in—I think that’s who he is, and who he’ll continue to be.”
After the last day of training, Elliott estimated that Jones had decreased his knee force movement by about 18 percent.
Jones’ freakish ability on the court had me smitten, but his self-awareness is what made me a real believer in his success. Despite a ridiculous NCAA suspension at the end of Jones’ freshman year—one of the NCAA’s using-a-bazooka-to-remove-a-ketchup-stain specials in its long-running conflict against picayune violations—Jones decided to return for his sophomore year, mature enough to know he wasn’t yet mature enough for the pro game. His time with P3 was a preemptive measure to help his body best defend against the unknowable future. It’s the kind of proactive effort that could have saved the prime years of Tracy McGrady’s career. Potential is fleeting, but Jones is doing what he can to protect it while he’s still young.
His task, this year, will be to disarm the time bomb that is himself. It’s not, in retrospect, about omens or portents or signs or The Qyntel Woods Prophecy. It’s about doing the work. Perry Jones III is not there yet, but it should be riveting to watch him try to figure it out.