Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seth Jones was No. 1 on the Nashville draft charts

By Larry Wigge

Every dad loves to watch his son's grow and live up to their father's legacy.

For Ronald "Popeye" Jones that would have been a career with a basketball in hand, while draining 20-foot jump shots like they were going out of style. But ...

Jones, a 6-foot-8 power forward, wowed nobody with mid-air theatrics or dazzling offensive moves in his basketball career, but made himself enough of a low-post presence to play for six NBA teams -- Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors, averaging 7.0 points and 7.4 boards.

So much for the legacy part of this story. 

While he was playing for the Nuggets, Jones introduced himself to Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche at the practice facility that both of the Denver professional team shared in 1999.

He told Sakic, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, that he had three young boys who wanted to play hockey and no clue how to help them.

Listening to Jones tell the next part is priceless.

"I don't think he knew who I was, but I knew who Joe was, and I stopped him and introduced myself," Popeye remembered. "He looked at me all the way up and into my eyes. He saw how big I was. He said, 'They've got to be huge. Make sure they knows how to skate.' "

Keeping up with the Joneses was going to be difficult after that conversation. The proud father enrolled Seth, Justin and Caleb in a figure-skating class. They then joined up for the Littleton and Lone Tree clubs for eight years.

So, you see, whether Sakic would like to admit it, he was responsible for defenseman Seth Jones meteoric career -- long before Jones became a top prospect and potential No. 1 overall pick by Joe's Avalanche.

The parents took him and his two brothers to nearby Beaver Creek for the Joneses first foray around the rink. The kid decided to try something new.

Those rental ice skates that Jones wore when he was 5 were perfect -- like big boy's golf clubs. He skated and skated. Even though, he looked like he needed help, he waved off his parents' attempt to get him to use one of those stabilizing walkers.

"You could see what a blast he was having, right from the start. He was pretty good on skates even then," Popeye recalls.

Eighteen months later, Seth Jones had another little epiphany, pounding on the glass behind the goal of Pepsi Arena, celebrating the Avalanche and their Game 7, Stanley Cup clinching victory over the New Jersey Devils, mesmerized by the speed and intensity and the virtuoso skills of the likes of Sakic, Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and Peter Forsberg.

Hockey had stolen Seth's heart, no matter what line of work his dad was in.

Seth Jones said, "It just kind of took off from there."

After being drafted 42nd overall by the Houston Rockets, the Joneses went on their long-standing journey from city to city. Popeye, who never played for Houston, started his career with Dallas. It was in Plano, Texas, where Seth was born. Obviously, the younger Joneses had clearly found ice turns out to be much thicker than blood. 

Seth Jones explained: "I actually am pretty good at basketball, I have to admit. I have a nice two-way game ... and, one thing is certain, I know I can dunk."

Amy Jones, Seth's mother, revealed, "Seth loves playing basketball. When he gets home from the Combine, I guarantee you he and his brothers will be at the gym playing the next day. But he was adamant about not doing anything organized. It probably killed Popeye, because he saw the talent he had."

Seth Jones was surprised by how the draft went for him. He was not No. 1. Not No. 2. Not even No. 3. He was overlooked. Something he will long have a chip on his shoulder for being the No. 4 pick by the Nashville Predators.

"Oh for sure," said Jones. "I'll always have in the back of my mind: wanting to make those three teams regret not taking me."

David Poile, the GM of the Predators, couldn't have been happier that Jones fell to Nashville.

"I absolutely, 100 percent, 110 percent, said Seth was No. 1 on our list ... all year long," Poile explained. "I think he's the best player in the draft. Period ...

Trying to hold back the excitement of having Seth Jones with the fourth pick, caught Poile off-guard. But ...

"He's the whole package," Poile continued. "He has size, he has great skating, he has offensive abilities. I certainly think he's going to be an aggressive player. He can be a Norris Trophy winner ... and that's not to say the other guys couldn't be equally as good, but that's how I would have him -- as the best player in the draft.”

At 6-4, 208 pounds, Jones is a throwback. He matched Evander Kane of the Atlanta Thrasher (in 2009) being the highest-drafted black player in the 51-year history of the NHL draft.

Seth was a quick study, making his way through the youth ranks, standing out at every level, playing for the Midget Dallas Stars after the Joneses moved back to Texas in 2007. 

Jones acknowledged that the two sports did not have much in common, but said he learned from watching basketball players.

"The persons I watched closely were Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd," he said, recalling when his father was an assistant with the Mavericks. "You'd see Dirk back there behind the scenes taking jump shots before and after games, before and after practices. It just taught me to keep working hard when no ones's watching ... and the person you are behind the scenes is your true self."

Before long Jones was off to Ann Arbor at age 15, playing for USA Hockey’s U-17 and U-18 U.S. national teams. 

At Portland of the Western Hockey League, Jones topped out with 14 goals and 42 assists in 61 games. At the World Junior tournament in December and January, Seth played for the United States -- accounting for one goal and six assists in seven games.

It was there that Jones met Phil Housley, newly hired assistant coach of the Nashville Predators. Housley was a prototypical rushing defenseman in his stellar blue-line career. He had Jones on the U.S. junior team that won the world championship last winter, Jones leading all defensemen with six assists. Housley came away hugely impressed by his skating, shot, hockey instincts and ability to lead a rush, but he, too, was mostly taken by Jones' emotional steadiness.

"There's no panic level in his game," Housley says. "When he has the puck he's poised and calm. Just a great athlete and built for today's game. He's big, strong, physical, great defensively, has a good stick, makes an excellent first pass out of the zone and plays in all situations. He's the most well-rounded player.

"He will be physical at the right times to keep everyone honest. He will play in all situations and, at some point in his career, he could be the top defenseman in the league.

"I hate to put this on his lap, but I can see him becoming a Chris Pronger type."

In a nutshell, Seth has the rare combination of skill, size and power, which allows him to impact the game in multiple ways and in any situation. He is smart and can respond to the various challenges he is confronted with by understanding what his options are and then being able to carry them out. He is blessed with great athletic ability and he moves about the ice with ease and the ability to use his skating to his advantage either defensively or offensively.

And he enjoys ...

"I love the big stage and playing in the big games," he said. "You have to enjoy the position. I know a lot of people would enjoy being where I am, so I'm thankful for everything I have right now."

A couple of years ago, Popeye and Amy were divorced. With Popeye on the road so much his mother, Amy, steered her son down the right path from home.

"Mom taught me everything from how to be a young man, to a handshake, eye contact, all sorts of things," Seth said. "She just wanted me to be respectful."

Or as Amy Jones continued, "Whether you are a plumber or whatever you do, you always want to make sure you do the best job you can, because somebody else is always going to be ready to take your job."

Easy to say where his thoughtfulness comes from.

Some might say, that Seth Jones shows off his hockey/basketball build.

"I'm 6-4 and pretty lanky. I fit the basketball description visually," Jones said. "And I love the game. I play in the summer with my brothers but never had the drive to play organized basketball. I'm pretty good, believe it or not, but I never had the drive to play."

Seth had tried the other sports. Baseball. Football. Soccer. Basketball, too. None of them clicked. Hockey was different -- the pace it maintains, the focus it demands.

"A lot of my friends pushed me to play," Jones recalled. "They had started to play in elementary school. ... I liked the speed, the intensity. The game keeps you on your toes."

It's clear to say, Jones became infatuated.

"The intensity of the game -- it's nonstop," he continued. "You've always got to know what's going on -- the situation, the time of the game. From the moment you step onto the ice, there's no going back. You've got to be 100 percent mentally into the games."

Legacy ... or a genuine love for hockey.

Ask him what's his favorite team growing up? That's easy the Colorado Avalanche and their Stanley Cup in 2001. Ask him his favorite player? Nick Lidstrom of Detroit.

Seth Jones remembered back to his father meeting Joe Sakic. He revealed all the travel his father made during his days as a player and afterward as a scout and team executive ... in basketball.

He laughed at the uniqueness of his story ...

"I'd be shocked myself if I heard a story like that," Jones said, when asked if people are surprised by the combination of a basketball father and a hockey son. "Me and my two brothers all play hockey, so it was weird, I guess, that none of us played basketball."

Weird. Yes. But a good story nonetheless.

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