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‘I had to work so hard to get here’: New Washington State post Isaac Jones takes long road to Pac-12

PULLMAN – Four years ago, Isaac Jones thought his basketball career was over.

Now, he’s in line for a starting role at Washington State.

The 6-foot-9 post from Spanaway, Washington, took a roundabout route to the high-major ranks.

“I had to work so hard to get here, and I have to keep proving myself,” Jones said recently by phone.

After an underwhelming prep career, the Orting High grad stepped away from the sport and joined the workforce. Jones spent a year employed at Puget Sound Pipe & Supply.

“I didn’t think I was going to play after high school,” Jones said. “I liked basketball, but didn’t love it, and I didn’t have the best high school career. After my senior year, I didn’t have any offers. … I started paying bills and helping my mom out.”

But a fortuitous opportunity brought Jones back to the court in 2019 at Wenatchee Valley College.

Jones’ friend – fellow Spanaway product Joseph Lowe – was searching for a playing offer at the junior-college level. Lowe got in contact with Wenatchee Valley coach Jeremy Harden.

“I got a cold call from another prospective student-athlete who wanted to be a part of our team,” Harden said. “I told him, ‘We’re looking for some size, so if you know anyone who’s 6-8 or bigger, then I could possibly have a spot for you.’

“(Lowe) said, ‘My best friend is 6-8.’ He sent me some video, and it was Isaac. I ended up taking both players.”

Harden was intrigued with Jones’ potential – his size and 7-3 wingspan stood out – but knew it’d take some time to trim pounds and knock off the rust. Jones weighed about 280 pounds when he first arrived at Wenatchee Valley, and several elements of his game were “unstable,” Harden said.

“But he hit the ground running and ended up figuring it out,” Harden said. “He was in the gym for early mornings and late nights. He realized he had some potential and could do this. His work ethic was good. He had good length, big hands and long arms, and not many of those guys walk into the gym. When we started playing a little bit, he handled the ball pretty well.”

It was a “leap of faith” for Jones, who had to get back in shape and rededicate himself to basketball.

“I wasn’t very good when I got there,” he said. “I was really overweight and I had never really lifted (weights) before. Then I started getting more athletic and explosive, and that changed everything. Once I started developing a little bit, I was like, ‘I think I have a shot.’ ”

Jones captured a starting job as a freshman in 2019-20 and put up averages of 10.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Jones decided to stay in Wenatchee and focused on honing his skills.

“That was huge for him,” Harden said. “He was able to be in the gym, getting a lot of shots up and getting a lot of conditioning. He made a big jump between his freshman and sophomore year. I knew (Jones had a future in basketball) when I saw his dedication.”

Jones posted per-game averages of 18.9 points and 12.6 rebounds during the coronavirus-shortened 2020-21 season.

“I had some Division II interest, but I decided to come back and that’s the year I blew up,” Jones said.

In 2021-22, Jones became a Northwest Athletic Conference star. He claimed NWAC Player of the Year honors after averaging 25.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game while shooting 69.6% from the field – all conference highs.

A few years prior, playing for a Division I program may have only been a dream for Jones. But D-I offers started pouring in after his productive third season.

His offer sheet included a few high-major programs – WSU, Iowa State and Oregon State among them – but Jones chose the University of Idaho.

His mentor, Harden, had taken a job as an assistant with the Vandals. And Jones’ hometown friend, guard Divant’e Moffitt, was headed to Moscow.

“He saw it as an opportunity to play with his best friend and also to be able to play under myself again, and have some more development at a higher level,” Harden said. “The stars aligned and we were fortunate to do it together.”

Jones wound up on the All-Big Sky second team and earned the conference’s newcomer of the year award.

Jones finished second in the Big Sky in scoring (19.4 ppg) and set a season high with 42 points. He placed fourth in the conference in rebounding (7.8 per game) and first in blocks (1.13 per game). Jones also led the conference and finished ninth nationally in field-goal percentage (62.9%).

“I wanted to make an immediate impact,” Jones said. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised by what I did, because I knew how hard I’d worked. I feel like I proved that I can compete at any level. It was a jump that I had to make, and I plan on doing it again, but even better.”

The Vandals had parted ways with coach Zac Claus late in the season, and Jones opted to enter the transfer portal in late April with one season of eligibility remaining. He earned a four-star transfer grade and was the No. 9-ranked big man in the portal, according to

Jones signed with the Cougars in mid-May, choosing WSU over the likes of Villanova, Memphis, Arizona State and Clemson.

“I wanted to represent my home state for my last year,” Jones said. “I love the coaches here. It was a perfect situation for me.”

WSU coach Kyle Smith said last month that he expects Jones to adopt a starting role in the Cougars’ frontcourt and offset the loss of All-Pac-12 center Mouhamed Gueye, who is hoping to hear his name called in the NBA draft later this month.

“I watched Mouhamed play last year and I was like, ‘I can play like him,’ ” Jones said. “I took some stuff from his game. (WSU coaches) wanted me to replace his production and his minutes, and we’re kind of similar in some areas.”

Jones said he specializes in “getting to the basket, getting downhill.”

At 240 pounds, Jones said he “uses my long arms to get shots over people.”

“I don’t think there will be too much of an adjustment (to the power-conference level),” Harden said. “The biggest adjustment will be on the defensive side, but offensively, he can play against anyone from any conference. I think he’s more than ready. He’s a confident kid who has put in enough time and effort.”

Smith sees Jones as a “great fit for the offensive scheme.” Jones, like Gueye, can function as the centerpiece of the Cougars’ offense and open doors for his teammates.

“I can draw double teams and make crosscourt passes,” said Jones, who averaged 1.7 assists per game last season at Idaho. “I think my passing will stand out a little more this year, because we have dudes who can really shoot the ball.”

Becoming a more productive shooter from midrange and 3-point distance is a priority for Jones, who shot 6 of 19 from beyond the arc last season.

“My jumper is getting better and better, and I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “(Smith) talked to me about how I’d develop here. Shooting was one of the aspects I needed and this is a great place for it.”

Now living in Pullman with his fiancee, Jones is settling in with his new team. The Cougars conducted their first offseason practice earlier this week – and taking nothing for granted.

“I’m gonna give it all I’ve got,” he said. “I want to come in and hit the ground running, get into the best shape of my life and keep polishing my game. I’ve always had to prove myself. I just have to keep the mindset that I haven’t proven anything yet.”