Photos by Brian Pohorylo
UNCASVILLE - As a senior, playing in the shadows of Rutgers at Piscataway High in Piscataway, N.J., Asjha Jones was one of the most heavily recruited women's basketball players in the country in 1998. A Parade, USA Today and Street & Smith first-team All-American, Jones averaged 22.2 points 11.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.5 blocks and 2.9 steals, and graduated as Piscataway High's all-time leader in points scored (2,266) and rebounds (1,256).
YOU GO GIRL: For the first time since becoming a pro, former UConn star Asjha Jones has become a
As a member of the "Fab Four" of incoming UConn freshman in September of that year -- Jones, Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Tamika Williams (now Tamika Raymond) -- she would become a part of UConn history in 2001-2002 when, along with Diana Taurasi, Ashley Battle and Jessica Moore, the Huskies sliced through the regular and postseason like a hot knife through butter, an unblemished 39-0 mark culminating in a national championship. But a funny thing happened to Asjha Jones on her way from high school superstardom to the NCAA big stage: She comfortably transitioned from go-to star to a supporting role.
As a freshman at UConn, for instance, she averaged just 9.8 points and 5 rebounds, appearing in all 34 games, but starting in only 18. As a sophomore, she became the consummate "sixth player" for the first time in her career. She came off the bench in all 36 games in which she appeared, averaging 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds. But statistics can be deceptive as she led the team in scoring three times, scored in double digits 17 times, and led the Huskies in scoring three times, rebounding six times and blocked shots 10 times. Furthermore, Asjha turned up the heat in the NCAA Tournament, scoring in double digits in five of six NCAA Tournament games, and 28 points in two Final Four games. She was named to the Final Four All-Tournament Team in leading the Huskies to the national title.
As a junior, her role increased as she started 35 games and while her scoring average dipped to 8.9 points per game, she managed double digits 16 times, and averaged 10.3 points and 6 rebounds in the Big East Tournament, being named to the Big East All-Tournament team.
Then, as a senior, the magic happened. With the "Fab Four" all seniors, and a supporting cast of soon-to-be WNBA stars, the team functioned to perfection. Not only did UConn run the table all the way to the national championship, Asjha Jones had a break-out season.
Starting all 39 games, she hit double figures 33 times, and led the team in scoring 11 times, rebounding 10 times and blocks 18 times. Prior to the start of the season, she was named second-team All-Big East, but by the time it was over, she was a first-team All-Big East selection. In addition, Asjha was the 2002 Big East Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, averaging 15 points and 8.3 points per game, and was named to the NCAA Mideast Region and Final Four All-Tournament Teams.
Furthermore, Jones was a star in the classroom, as well, earning first-team All Academic American honors. As she stood on the threshold of a professional basketball career, it appeared that Asjha Jones had finally made the leap from supporting cast to star starter.
Among the "Fab Four," Jones was the one that Geno Auriemma really wanted. But for her first three years at Storrs, she was content at merely playing a part -- albeit a very important part -- of a well-oiled machine.
"That's kind of how I am anyway," says the understated star. "It used to frustrate some people. It used to frustrate coach Auriemma. But that's who I am. It's part of the learning process, getting comfortable. Eventually the confidence will come."
Drafted in the first round of the 2002 WNBA draft by the Washington Mystics (fourth overall), it appeared to many observers that the time had finally come for Asjha Jones to step up and shine on her own.
Or had it?
Back to Basics
If college success automatically translated into professional glory, David Thompson, Marvin Barnes and Bobby Hurley would all be firmly entrenched in the Hall of Fame. Rather, a blazing college career does nothing more than set the table and elevate expectations for a professional follow-up, which is anything but automatic.
Even though she was picked at No. 4 overall, Asjha found herself overshadowed by Husky teammates Sue Bird, who was drafted first overall by the Seattle Storm and Swin Cash who went No. 2 to the Detroit Shock. (The fourth member of the "Fab Four" Tamika Raymond, then known as Tamika Williams, went No. 6 to the Minnesota Lynx. UConn dominated the 2002 WNBA Draft as no other draft, men's or women's, has ever been.) And while Bird broke out and made the All-WNBA first team as a rookie, and Cash made an immediate impact in Detroit, finishing third in WNBA Rookie of the Year voting and helping to lead the Shock to its first WNBA title in her second year, Asjha Jones seemed to settle back into the supporting role that she had become so familiar (and successful) with at UConn.
She didn't have a bad rookie campaign; it just didn't particularly stand out. Coming off the bench, Asjha Jones would put up solid numbers during limited time on the court in an even more subservient role than she had as a freshman at UConn. In her second year at Washington, she started 10 games, but still saw herself as a back-up player -- someone who would pitch in and do her part, but not lead the team.
After two years on Washington's bench, Jones returned to Connecticut and became the best 6th person in the WNBA.
The numbers speak for themselves: In her first two years in the WNBA with the Mystics, Jones appeared in 66 games, starting 15 times and averaging 7.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. She showed flashes of brilliance, such as a 21-point effort vs. Indiana and a 12-rebound game vs. the Sun in her sophomore campaign. But those were the exception, not the rule.
Then, before the 2004 season, the Sun acquired Jones for a first-round pick (eighth overall) in a three-way deal with the Mystics and the Phoenix Mercury. Delighted to be back in Connecticut, Asjha's minutes would increase with the Sun, but not significantly at first. After all, the Sun roster already featured two solid post players: perennial WNBA All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Brooke Wyckoff. It appeared to be a classic case of back to the future for Asjha Jones.
"We're thrilled to have her," said Sun head coach Mike Thibault immediately after acquiring Jones, who would join another UConn star, Nykesha Sales, on the Sun roster. "This is a young, up-and-coming player. We felt she was a good fit. It doesn't hurt that she has a fan following in this area, but that is not why the trade was made. The trade was made to make us better."
"We've long sought the opportunity to bring Asjha Jones to our team," added Sun GM Chris Sienko. "Since last year, it's been our objective. We think her skills will complement Taj [McWilliams-Franklin] and Brooke [Wyckoff], and significantly improve our frontcourt."
Jones welcomed a return to her adopted home state. "I think it's exciting to come back to Connecticut because the fans are wonderful, and it's a family atmosphere," she said. "There aren't many places where women's basketball is number one, but Connecticut is one of those places."
In 2004, Jones became the first player off the bench, spelling McWilliams and putting up solid numbers during limited action. Although her minutes (20.6 per game), points (6.0) and rebounds (3.5) did not at all stand out, her supporting role on the team went a long way in providing the kind of depth necessary for the Sun to make a run to the WNBA title, when they finished runners-up to Sacramento. Indeed, Jones gave us a glimpse of her future when she scored in double-digits three times, in the postseason, averaging 27 minutes and 7.4 points per game, and scoreing 12 points in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on 6-for-11 shooting.
Her minutes, and her numbers, grew in each of her first three years with the Sun, from 6.9 points per game to 9.1, 11.1 and 16.2. By the end of last year, Asjha Jones was widely recognized as the WNBA's version of John Havlicek -- the very best player in the league off the bench.
But that wasn't enough for Thibault. In February, the Sun traded perennial All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin to the L.A. Sparks as a replacement for Lisa Leslie, who is expected to miss most -- if not all -- of the 2007 season due to pregnancy. In return, the Sun received Erika de Souza, a 6-foot 5-inch post player from Brazil who had played for the Sparks in 2002, and had averaged 6.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in about 13 minutes per game playing for Ros Casares (Spain) in the FIBA Euroleague. The idea was for Asjha to step into her former mentor's spot, and for de Souza and Kristen Rasmussen, a 6-2 forward acquired from Phoenix, for strength off the bench.
McWilliams-Franklin, a solid player, was also a relic. She was one of the two original Sun players left over from the Orlando days (Sales being the other), and, in fact, started her pro career in the defunct ABL. The Sun made the decision: It was high time to get younger. The table was set for Asjha to step up. But was she ready?
The early season results were mixed. After scoring just 6 points with 5 rebounds on the road against the Mystics to open the season, Jones responded with a solid 20-point, 9-rebound effort at San Antonio. That set the stage for the Sun's home opener -- fittingly against McWilliams-Franklin and the Sparks.
Thick as a Brick
Perhaps it was jitters. Perhaps it was a brain freeze playing against her former mentor. But Asjha Jones's performance in the 2007 home opener was the worst of her career. By the time the dust had settled, there was little doubt in the minds of the 8,312 in attendance that the teacher had totally taken the student back to school because as McWilliams-Franklin posted a solid 15-point, 7-rebound performance, Jones had an absolutely hellacious day, including a 1-for-14 performance from the field. With the teacher making the student look foolish, the Sparks spanked the Sun 86-66.
Despite going 1-for 14 vs. L.A., Jones showed a veteran's maturity.
Jones tried to keep things in perspective, calling the Los Angeles experience "just like any other game." Except that it produced her worst shooting night ever, and was played against her former mentor.
"I feel for Asjha," McWilliams-Franklin said. "That's my girl. I love Asjha. I want to see her do well, but not against us. Guarding Asjha is like guarding myself. I kind of know every move she's going to do. I know it's hard for her to shoot over me. I know how her feet are going to look. I know when she's going to spin. I know when she's going to turn back. She had some go in and out."
"I'm not picking on Asjha ... but those are wide-open shots," Thibault said. "That kills you. I know they're going to go in eventually. I've got to let her play through it. But it's hard when they're not going in. The same shots she got tonight are the same ones she made the second half the other night in San Antonio."
After the game, Jones showed a veteran's maturity with her approach to the performance she had just given. "It's really early," she said. "If it continues a month from now, I'll be concerned."
Connecticut basketball fans could easily recall the image of freshman Diana Taurasi throwing up brick after brick in the 2001 national semifinals against Notre Dame, ending the game with a 1-for-15 performance and leaving many wondering if this kid from California actually had what it took to step up to the plate with the spotlight blazing. Never mind that All-Americans Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrizomova were both injured and that Taurasi's grand entrance into the national spotlight had to be jumpstarted just a bit; 1-for-15 is 1-for 15. This is Connecticut basketball we're talking about.
In fact, after Taurasi's 1-for-15 debacle, UConn didn't lose a regular-season or postseason game for nearly two years. So much for losing faith.
And so it was with Asjha, who followed up her Los Angeles whooping with a 31-point, 6-rebound resurrection vs. the Chicago Sky in Chicago in which she put up 26 points after intermission, followed by a 24-point, 7-rebound coming-out party versus the Phoenix Mercury whose leader is, ironically enough, Diana Taurasi, June 2 at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
"She was mad at herself after the last couple of games," said Thibault after the Chicago game. "And she just kind of calmed down and made shot after shot. She put on a show for the fans."
Following the Phoenix triumph, Jones was named the WNBA's Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Her 31 points vs. Chicago made Jones just the third player in franchise history to score over 30 points in a game, and the first since the 2003 season. The talent that Thibault had visioned has now been set free for all of Sun Nation to enjoy.
"I just really wanted to come into this season and work hard," she says. "I don't think about all the extra things, I keep it simple, I don't think, 'Oh my God, I'm a starter, I have all this responsibility.' I just try to keep it simple. At the end of last season, coach told me that I did a really great job and that my opportunity would come. Anyone who knows me knows I just want to win."
Over the first 15 games this season, Jones is averaging 16.2 points per game. After the L.A. debacle, she scored in double-digits in 11 of 12 games, scoring 20 or more four times. She remains a dominant force in the paint, averaging 13.2 points, and recording two double-doubles thus far -- against Minnesota on June 13 and Chicago on June 17.
"Asjha can be an All-Star in this league," says Thibault. "I've been telling her that for a year now. She has as much pure talent as any power forward [in the WNBA]. In the past, she accepted, perhaps accepted to a fault, that she was a ‘piece player' rather than a go-to player. She has the ability, but like a lot of players who weren't the first or second option in college, they're content to be secondary players."
Stardom, of course, doesn't happen overnight.
"It's been a year-by-year process," continues Thibault. "It's not that she didn't contribute, but I felt at times that Asjha may have been holding back."
Now, without restraints, after so many years as a supporting player, she finally feels comfortable morphing into the role she seemed made for since she was an All-American at Piscataway High: Leading Lady.
And what makes things even more special is that she's coming into her own back home in Connecticut.
"It's great," says Jones of her second go-round at stardom in the Nutmeg State. "These fans out here, they know me so they really appreciate it and appreciate me a lot more. Coming into the season I think they had high expectations for me, and that just puts the pressure on you to step up to the occasion."
Sun's coach Mike Thibault thinks Jones has all the tools to develop into a WNBA All-Star.