Who’s starting at point guard has been probably the only significant Bulls storyline during a quiet training camp and preseason schedule that continues 7 p.m. Thursday in the United Center against the defending champion Denver Nuggets.
But as we know nothing’s over, to paraphrase the famous leader John “Bluto” Blutarsky, until Billy says it is over. Because the toughest get going, and the first one to do it has been Coby White, who stood out in Sunday’s opening exhibition game in Milwaukee. White, playing primarily with the regular starters, had team-highs of 14 points and six assists along with six rebounds. It wouldn’t be surprising if Donovan continued the competition Thursday, however, perhaps starting either Jevon Carter or Ayo Dosunmu, the other two presumptive candidates.
Which would ignore the only true point guard on the roster, G League veteran Carlik Jones, who is trying to earn a roster spot. That quest may have suffered a bit of a setback in a scoreless nine minutes against the Bucks. Though that was late in the game with a hodgepodge of free agent hopefuls mostly destined for the G League or overseas. But that’s nothing new for the often underrated six-foot guard who this summer was one of the best players in the FIBA World Cup basketball championships.
“It’s nothing new to me,” said Jones, who was G League MVP and leading scorer last season for the Windy City Bulls. “Got to keep your head down and grind, and I like to say I pray up as well. I pray every night and morning and leave it up to God. I’m 100% ready with my effort and energy on the floor and taking whatever it takes to win the game.”
Jones, with his Windy City success last season, had his contract converted by the Bulls to a regular NBA contract, but with this and next season not guaranteed. He has to make the opening day roster to activate the assurance. Though his surname might be Longshot for his journey through Radford University basketball, which gave its start to former Bull Javonte Green, three G League stints, three brief episodes with NBA teams, and then recruited for the longest long shot of all, to try to help earn the nascent nation of South Sudan its first Olympic basketball invitation.
Which Jones did with one of the most impressive runs in the worldwide summer tournament, averaging 20.4 points and a tournament-best and all-time record 10.4 assists per game. And along the way equalling FIBA World Cup records for assists in a game with 15 and most consecutive games with double-digit assists. And thus now sharing those records with perhaps the greatest facilitator in European basketball history, Toni Kukoč.
“Carlik not only should get minutes in the NBA,” former Bulls All-Star Luol Deng wrote me in an email. “But he can be a starter in the league.”
South Sudan native Deng took on the job of running the basketball federation of the country carved out of civil war just a decade ago. FIBA rules allow one naturalized citizen to play for the national team and Deng sought out Jones to run the team’s offense. Jones got his passport last spring and the love affair with the developing nation began.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to play on a big stage, a good opportunity to show what I can do on another big stage,” Jones said in an interview last week. “I did my homework on South Sudan and their history and their mission that made me want to play even more. It was an amazing experience, a blessing in disguise. I’d like to shout them out for accepting me with open arms, allowing me to come in and be myself. It was beautiful to see their culture, the celebrations, the dress, traveling with them to so many different countries.
“I’d say not a lot of people understand all the hard work they put in and what they’ve gone through to get to this point,” said Jones. “So to go to my first World Cup road games with them and qualify was amazing. We celebrated with their first World Cup wins. We did our job and we’ll be playing in Paris next summer.”
Now the part about playing for the Bulls.
The challenges keep coming for Jones.
Players like Jones, who wasn’t drafted and went to a small school though he did play one year at Louisville, face a common disadvantage in the NBA. Teams have to invest in their draft picks for multiple years while players like Jones generally are on make-good deals. So you can’t just be as good as the other guy. You have to be a lot better to get a team to pay someone not to play.
And then how much can you trust someone who hasn’t played much in the NBA, the classic Catch-22 for players like Jones. Who don’t get to play much in the NBA because they weren’t drafted and have disposable contracts. There you go again. Many do break through, but the obstacles are substantial along the way.
“It was a tough route to get here, but, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Jones insists. “I had a few (scholarship) offers (coming out of Cincinnati). But Radford was the only one who called me for a visit, came to watch me in AAU games, came to practices. They showed me unconditional love and support, and my biggest thing with Radford was the way the staff cared about more than just basketball. I’d always experienced people for what I could do on the basketball court. That was a huge thing for me committing to Radford.
“I think a lot of people say (my) size is an issue, but I don’t always think size is a problem,” Jones says. “There are guys in the league my height, guys in the league shorter than me. I’d say sometimes for me it was the inconsistent shooting from the three. Being short, I have to knock down that shot consistently. But I feel like I’m there now (36% with Windy City; 42% this summer with FIBA). It’s a grind, but I don’t let what people say get to me. I just take what comes and try to get better, and that’s all you can do.”
You root for guys like the 25-year-old Jones with his struggles and successes.
The curiosity with the Bulls is the three players vying for the starting point guard job aren’t organic or naturally comfortable facilitators. Which is why there’s been speculation about perhaps running more offense through Nikola Vučević. But Donovan also emphasizes defensive pressure as a priority, and the three main candidates have advantages with size and defensive presence. But while leading the G League in scoring last season, Jones also was one of the top 10 in the league in assists.
“I give a big shoutout to all my coaches from AAU to high school to college,” said Jones. “They knew I could score, they knew I could distribute the ball. But you’ve always got to have guys in the right spot. When you’re a point guard you are a leader and the team is as good as you are; they go as you go.
“It goes back to college at Louisville for me when I was with Chris Mack,” Jones recalled. “He pulled me into the office and told me, ‘You’ve got to learn how to run a team. To get to the NBA you have to tell eight, nine-year vets where to be and not be afraid to tell them when they are wrong and when they are right and when they are not in the right spot.’ That’s always my biggest thing, to be confident in what I am saying and to know what I am doing so I can tell guys where to be and where not to be.”
As Carlik Jones continues to await word on where he will be this season.