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WSU Men's Basketball

‘I got a chip on my shoulder’: Inside the motor that drives Washington State basketball star Isaac Jones

PULLMAN — Somewhere in Ivy Jones’ phone lives a photo she remembers like the back of her hand. It shows a younger version of her son Isaac, long before he transferred to Washington State and became one of the Pac-12’s best players, sitting on media row at the University of Washington’s basketball arena during a break in his school’s field trip.

Mom, I’m gonna play here, Isaac told Ivy.

“Not necessarily for the Huskies,” Ivy said, “but meaning at that level.”

At the time, Isaac was a high schooler in the small town of Orting, Washington, a late bloomer who Ivy described as “chunky.” He wasn’t particularly athletic, didn’t have the explosiveness that makes him one of the Cougars’ best. He wasn’t on any college coaches’ radars, and as the years passed, that hardly changed.

Jones wanted to stand out, so as a prep player, he did what he felt most comfortable: Chucked shots from the outside. He became a reliable perimeter shooter. He was the antithesis of the player he is now, turning down inside looks for 3-pointers galore.

A couple of years later, after he left early from a California school that Ivy says “really made him feel bad about not being the right fit” and spent a year working at Puget Sound Pipe & Supply, he wound up at Wenatchee Valley Community College, where coaches inverted his game. They recognized his size, made him an interior force and all but banned him from shooting 3-pointers.

Jones was willing to change, to completely remodel his game. In a pace-and-space era, a time where even players of Jones’ 6-foot-9 frame are encouraged to let it fly from deep, Jones agreed to become the opposite of the player he was not two years prior.

Why?

“Oh,” Ivy said, “because people tell him he can’t.”

•••

The motor that drives Jones, the paint beast who has recorded seven double-doubles for the Cougars (16-6, 7-4 Pac-12), comes from all the years he spent feeling overlooked. He had nearly no offers out of high school, spent three years at Wenatchee, then played last season at Idaho, a midmajor where he averaged 19 points and eight rebounds.

At every stop, Jones has played to prove that he belongs, that he can play at even higher levels. He hasn’t always cared what others say about him – “I just keep going back and thinking about my abilities, being confident in myself,” he said – but he hears all the trash talk. He draws fuel from it.

“I think it’s huge because it’s part of who I am.  I got a chip on my shoulder,” Jones said in early January, after WSU knocked off then-No. 8 Arizona. “A lot of them think I shouldn’t be here, or that I’m a fluke and I just get lucky.”

On so many occasions, Jones has heard the whispers. In the Cougars’ win over the Wildcats, he heard defenders telling him he couldn’t score without getting fouled. Earlier in the season, Ivy passed on to Isaac what she heard a television commentator say, that he isn’t very athletic. Isaac’s junior varsity high school coach often gave more minutes to his son, who would tell Isaac he’s better than him.

“He just thrives on that,” Ivy said, “because he’s worked so hard to change the narrative about himself, because he knows who he is.”

Perhaps that isn’t so uncommon. Players trash talk each other on the court all the time. Jones just takes it personally, takes it as a challenge to prove that he’s followed this path for a reason. In the conference’s history, how many of the Pac-12’s best players spent their previous four seasons playing at lower levels?

The proof Jones is succeeding, that he has always belonged at the Power Five level, comes from those who have felt lucky to work with him in years past. Take it from Zac Claus, Jones’ head coach at Idaho. After Jones left Wenatchee, he fielded a few power-conference offers, including Iowa State and Oregon State – and WSU.

Instead, he took his talents to the Big Sky.

Idaho forward Isaac Jones watches during a Big Sky Conference game against Portland State on Feb. 2 at Viking Pavilion in Portland. Jones recently transferred to Washington State.  (Idaho Athletics)
Idaho forward Isaac Jones watches during a Big Sky Conference game against Portland State on Feb. 2 at Viking Pavilion in Portland. Jones recently transferred to Washington State. (Idaho Athletics)

“We knew going in that once he said yes,” said Claus, now the head coach at Division II Western Colorado, “that was as big of a celebration for our staff – when we knew he was coming into play for us – that we had him. We knew with his level of talent, with his length, with his ability simply to score the ball, that he was gonna be a difference maker for us, which he absolutely was.”

At the time, Jones knew he could perform at the Power Five level. He just opted with comfort. During his recruitment, Jones’ head coach at Wenatchee, Jeremy Harden, took an assistant’s job at Idaho. He wasn’t just Jones’ coach. He was Jones’ mentor, the guy who believed in him when he was a 19-year-old packaging pipe supplies.

So when Harden moved to Idaho, Jones went with him. He was also getting the chance to play with a lifelong friend, Divant’e Moffitt, a guard who now plays professionally in Poland. Toss in the recruiting work of former UI assistant Kenny Tripp, now the head coach at DII Adams State, and you get one of the best values in college athletics: A Power Five player at a midmajor.

It prompts the question: At any point during his year at Idaho, did Jones wonder if he could produce at the school on the other side of the border?

“I think even before I committed, I knew I could do it at any level,” Jones said, “and I think that’s kind of helped me influence my decisions. I was like, I was not afraid of what people were gonna say, like say, I’m only having success at this level. Because I feel like I have pro-level talent. So I’m gonna be able to show it, no matter what system I’m in.”

In that way, Jones walks the fine line that defines him. He only internalizes the doubt enough to let it fire him up. He doesn’t lend the fluke talk any credence – “His attitude is, well, I’m here,” Ivy said – but he does it parlay it into motivation.

The receipt is in the numbers, in the way he uses the same athleticism he possessed at Wenatchee to dominate Pac-12 defenders.

Headed into WSU’s road swing against Oregon State and Oregon this weekend, he is the team’s leading scorer, with 15.8 points per game. He’s scored in double figures in 20 of 22 games , and when he tallied double-doubles in wins against USC and Arizona, he was named the national player of the week by both ESPN and the Naismith Basketball Foundation.

Jones hasn’t transitioned to the Power Five flawlessly – he was overwhelmed by Utah’s size in WSU’s conference opener, and two games later, he scored one point in 26 minutes in a win over Oregon State – but he keeps putting those outings in the past, keeps producing ones that look like he belongs.

Last weekend, in WSU’s road win over rival Washington, he totaled 20 points and seven rebounds, including the dunk off a pick-and-roll to send the game to overtime. In the two games prior, wins over Utah and Colorado, Jones picked up back-to-back double-doubles.

He’s one of the Cougars’ go-to scorers, a guy who can create on the block. He has the footwork, the touch, the instincts to put it all together. “He has great feel,” WSU guard Myles Rice said.

Sometimes Jones soars to the rim for a dunk. Sometimes he curls around the lane for a layup. And sometimes he has to quickly turn over his right shoulder for a hook shot, avoiding the kind of defensive attention that really proves he has arrived: The double team.

“I always just talk to him about, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, doesn’t matter about where people think you are in the future,” Harden said. “You just gotta stay present and forget about what everyone else thinks, forget about your community college stuff, just stay in the moment and keep getting better. I think he’s done an unbelievable job of that.”

“There’s a you-know-you-belong feeling,” Smith said of Jones.

Jones isn’t just showing he belongs, though. He’s showing himself what he’s known all along.

•••

Isaac Jones is facing something of a catch-22. He’s a naturally quiet guy, and if it were up to him, he would avoid the spotlight entirely.

Except he can’t avoid it now, not while he’s playing like this, playing for a Washington State team angling for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years. His face is on TV, on social media, in newspapers like this one. For a guy who grew up in a small town and spent the last four years playing at small schools, these are the brightest lights he’s operated under.

He isn’t fazed by them for a couple reasons: He wants to play in brighter lights, and he knows for the Cougs to keep winning, he can’t be.

“He came up to me and gave me a big ol’ hug,” Ivy said, referring to WSU’s win over UW. “I said, how does it feel? Because it’s a dream just to be on the Huskies’ court. That’s history, right? I said, how do you feel? And he said, gotta stay humble. I gotta stay humble. And I said, good boy.”

Ivy laughed as she recalled that memory. She still sees that young Isaac, the kid who dreamt of playing in the Pac-12. Now she’s looking at one of its best players.