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Firebonds' Jones energized by support of Fukushima fans

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Japan Times features periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. Verdell Jones III of the Fukushima Firebonds is the subject of this week’s profile.

Position: Guard
Age: 25
Ht: 195 cm
Wt: 85 kg
Hometown: Champaign, Illinois
College: Indiana

Noteworthy: Jones leads the Firebonds, a first-year franchise, in scoring (19.1 points per game), assists (5.7, No. 2 in the league) plus free throws made and free throws attempted. … Fukushima is 17-29 and sits in the East’s eighth and final playoff spot with a bye this weekend.

. . . According to his biography page on the Indiana University athletics website, in 2008, Jones was ranked No. 28 nationally among senior point guards while at Champaign Central High School, and 30th by . .. When he completed his four-year career as a Hoosier in 2012, Jones had scored in double figures in 68 games, finishing his career No. 23 on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,347 points). He was ninth on IU’s career assist chart (389). . . .

Jones joined the Oita HeatDevils in November 2013 and played 26 games that season, averaging 13.6 points and 5.0 steals. Last season, he appeared in 41 HeatDevils games and contributed 16.1 points, 4.4 assists and 1.8 steals.

Opponent’s view: After Sunday’s series finale against the Firebonds at Yokohama International Swimming Pool, Yokohama B-Corsairs guard Warren Niles was asked to analyze Jones’ skill set. He responded by saying, “I think Verdell is really good. He’s a great driver, so that means you have to give him a little room. The thing is, he can also pull up for the 3 or the jump shot. That makes him tough to guard, so with his ability in getting to the rim and shooting the basketball, it’s kind of tough to guard him.”

And because of Jones’ ability to dish out assists and set his teammates up for scores, Niles and other opponents have a nonstop challenge in keeping Jones in check. Niles said, “That’s the thing with him, you’ve got to help (defensively) on him, but the thing is he can make plays. He’s a tough opponent to play against.”

* * *

How would you say you’ve played this season?

I’ve been playing well. My role now has changed a little bit with my injury (a Feb. 22 right knee injury against the Aomori Wat’s forced him to miss four games). But as a whole, I think I’ve progressed through the season. I started off a little shaky and I’ve gotten better, and I think it’s helping our team get better each week.

How does your knee feel?

There are some sharp pains still every now and then, but it’s gotten a lot better.

Is Golden State star Stephen Curry a guy you think you resemble in your style of play? Or are there other guys you think your game is more closely associated with?

He is obviously a way better shooter, a 3-point shooter, but you know, when he gets in the lane he uses his (skills). He’s not going to blow past you or dunk on you but he has his crafty ways to get the shot off, so I try to emulate stuff like that from him.

What is it like having the experience of playing for a brand new team in a prefecture that is rebuilding after the March 11, 2011, disasters?

It’s definitely a pride thing for us. In Fukushima, they really support us, and I think that gives us a little extra motivation, because we know what happened in Fukushima and the tragedy there, so we really try to reach out and make our fans proud of us . . . It’s a first-year team and everything is new, so there’s a lot of troubles and problems, but we are trying to work on that.

Everything we do every day is a learning experience for everybody involved. So, sure there are ups and downs, but I love it here.

How has the team adjusted without power forward and leading rebounder Terrance Shannon since he went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 21? Has the team used that as a rallying point?

Yeah, I think so. “T” — he is a great player, and it was a huge loss for us, man. But James (Hughes) and Ed (Edward Morris) have really stepped up and (provided) more scoring and rebounding. We’ve depended on them more . . . and I think we are more of a running team now. We’re not big enough to fight guys, so we have to run. I think that’s how our offense is now.

Can you size up the impact that Firebonds guard Masaya Karimata, the team’s second-leading scorer (15.2 ppg with a team-best 135 3-pointers, plus 4.5 assists a game and a team-high 80 steals), has made for the team? And how would you evaluate how coach Hiroki Fujita has guided the club?

I think Masaya has done a tremendous job. We wouldn’t be in the situation we are without him. It’s really his first year coming out and doing what he’s doing. He’s definitely one of the best Japanese (players) in the league, and he has made everyone’s job, including coach’s job, easier.

Coach has done a great job of keeping things simple with a lot of young players, a lot of inexperienced players. They’ve both done a tremendous job this year and they have a huge future in Japan basketball.

Attending Indiana, a school with the rich basketball history and winning tradition, how did that experience motivate you and best prepare you for a career as a pro player?

It helped me be able to deal with a lot of pressure. Indiana fans demands great play every game, as well as being overseas, overseas team are paying you to be good every game or there is always the possibility of being released. Also by playing at Indiana I got the opportunity to face top talent every game and it has prepared me to face all kinds of players over here.

Which coach(es) and/or basketball mentor(s) have had the biggest influence on your career? And can you think of a key lesson he/they taught you?

My biggest mentor for basketball is/was by far my dad. He put the ball in my hand and he taught me every single thing I know about the game. One of the biggest things that he taught me that I always remember and take with me is that he told me “You may not be able to outrun or out-jump or out-muscle every player, but if you can out-think them on the court you will win every time!”

What has been a) your biggest thrill and b) your most unforgettable game as a basketball player? Why?

Two of the biggest memories was I hit an 80-foot shot in eighth grade at the buzzer to win my Illinois state championship game. I was on ESPN’s top play of the week. I was on “Good Morning America”  and many other TV shows.

The other greatest memory is beating Kentucky my senior (season) at the buzzer. That marked the resurgence of Indiana basketball and I was thrilled to say I was a part of that moment.

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