From Scarlet Knight to Blue Devil: A fresh start for Dahntay Jones
As time slipped away in Kent, Ohio and Rutgers was defeated in the first round of the 2000 NIT, sophomore guard Dahntay Jones had to wonder what his life had become.
Jones was a highly sought-after recruit from Hamilton N.J.'s Steinert High School. Major programs such as Stanford actively pursued the 6-foot-5 wing, but ultimately, Jones decided to join Kevin Bannon, whose camp he had attended since middle school, at Rutgers.
As a freshman, Jones exceeded lofty expectations. He averaged 10.7 points per game and made the All-Big East freshman team on a Rutgers squad that advanced to the second round of the NIT.
Great things were expected of Jones and Rutgers in the next season.
But expectations do not always match reality. Even though Jones led the team with 16.0 points per game, Rutgers struggled, going 3-10 in games decided by six points or fewer. Late in the season, Rutgers was in a free fall, winning just three of its last 11 games, dropping from NCAA contender to owner of a losing record. As the season wore on, Jones was clearly unhappy.
"I was tough on Dahntay because I wanted him to be the New Jersey player that stayed home and totally turned our program around," Bannon said. "I think in retrospect, I probably put too much pressure on him."
Two months after the loss to Kent, Jones announced he was transferring to Duke.
"I left Rutgers because I wasn't happy and I wasn't enjoying playing basketball," he said. "I felt I needed a different atmosphere, I needed to get away from home.... I just didn't want to be the sole icon on the team and just not get better."
While Jones headed to Duke to improve his game in extremely competitive practices, the coach who had been close to him for seven years was left to rebuild his program without its focal point.
"It really hurt me personally and professionally to have him leave," said Bannon, whose contract was bought out by Rutgers and was replaced by Kent's Gary Waters at the end of last season.
"As time has gone on, I think Dahntay probably did the right thing for [himself] and his family."
In practice last season, Jones frequently went head-to-head with Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy and old friend Jason Williams. Word spread around campus of his phenomenal athleticism, and a buzz grew saying that he was the third best player in practice.
When Duke won the national championship, Jones was in the front row of the stands, with nothing to do but cheer. He feels, however, that he learned a lot from the experience of sitting out.
"Last year, I had the chance to see how championship teams interact, how they stick together through tough times [and] how they become one and become a family during the course of a season," he said. "I never got the chance to experience anything like that. It was just overwhelming to see how everybody just came together through the tough times."
After being mostly hidden from national attention while sitting out the year, Jones exploded back onto the terrain of college basketball with a dominating performance at USA Basketball tryouts. Jones, who had not made it past first cuts the previous year, was the leading scorer in these trials. When competition rolled around, however, Jones spent most of his time on the bench.
"It was a great honor for me to be on the USA team," he said. "Coach [Jim] Boeheim coached the team the best way he can. If I didn't play, it didn't matter as long as we were winning and we won the gold medal. I tried to contribute as much as I could in practice and on the floor. I didn't get as much playing time, but I guess that was my role for the team."
His Duke teammate Dunleavy sees a more active role for Jones with the Blue Devils.
"His role is going to be to go out there, lock up the opposing [team's] best wing, slash to the basket, get easy points [and] get to the free throw line," he said.
On a team with gifted scorers at every position, Jones' most important role will be as a defender, a role in which he always shined at Rutgers.
"Coach K told me when I came in here that one of my major roles is to play defense," Jones said. "As a defender, I'm trying to be the best on and off the ball defender, pushing the ball, taking charges, steals [and] helping Carlos with his post assignments."
On the brink of his first season with Duke, while the Blue Devils look to repeat as national champions and Rutgers tries to break out of last place in the Big East, Jones has no regrets about his decision to come south.
"It's been great," he said. "The whole experience--college life, basketball--has been great. I'm enjoying every minute of it right now."