It was an unusual place to find Jelani Jones during a Tumwater High School basketball game, but there he was on the bench taking in the Thunderbirds’ nonconference game against Seton Catholic.
A starting guard for Tumwater the past two seasons, Jones wasn’t relegated to ride the pine because of poor play. As a matter of fact, T-Birds head coach Josh Wilson would had preferred his top player was on the floor doing what he does best. A sprained ankle suffered during Tumwater’s previous game against Central Kitsap, however, reduced Jones to a spectator.
In a wide-open 2A Evergreen Conference, this seemingly unfortunate moment could actually play a large role in helping the T-Birds capture a conference crown.
Instead of playing, Jones sat next to Wilson and the Tumwater assistant coaches, viewing the game from a different vantage point, seeing both his team’s strengths and what they needed to work on.
“He saw things from a coach’s perspective,” said Wilson, who is in his second season with the T-Birds. “His comments were pretty funny after the game because he saw what we were seeing. After that, he’s been way more vocal. I think from a leadership positon it really helped him out.”
Wilson and Jones both believe that added characteristic to Jones’ game will go a long way in helping Tumwater reach its goals this season.
“We’re seeing him become that team leader we need more and more,” Wilson said. “At the first of the year, everyone was still getting used to their new roles, but the last few games he’s definitely been stepping up.”
While Jones, a second-team all-conference pick last year, entered this year as one of the EvCo’s top players, that wasn’t the case last season.
“We had no idea from summer going into last season that he would do as well as he did. His growth over that time was tremendous. He just took off. I was very surprised by how much he improved,” Wilson said. “Now I have all the confidence in the world in him. He stepped up huge for us last year. I expect him to do the same thing this year.”
Jones had played JV his first two seasons and, according to Wilson, may not have gotten the reps he deserved early last year had it not been for Tumwater extending its football season with a deep playoff run.
The T-Birds advanced to the 2A state football title game in 2017, causing several of their players to miss the early portion of the basketball season.
That brief window of opportunity was all Jones needed. He hasn’t left the court since.
“One of the good things about football going so far is it gives guys chances who might not get them. Jelani is somebody who got (into the starting lineup) maybe more out of default because the football guys weren’t there yet, but he held on to it because he absolutely earned it. He probably still would have fought his way up, but once he became a starter he never lost it.”
Jones was the T-Birds’ second-leading scorer last year, averaging nearly nine points a contest. However, the lion’s share of the workload fell on C.J. Geathers, who would go on to be named conference MVP after leading the EvCo in scoring at 23 points a game.
With the graduation of Geathers, the team found itself needing to fill an extremely large role this year. Jones has been more than willing to take on that responsibility.
“Last year, I was just kind of like the second man,” Wilson said. “Now I have to really step it up, lead my team and be that better player.”
And according to Wilson, Jones is well on his way to becoming such a player.
“He does a lot of different things. He drives the basket. He’s probably our best passer for sure. He shoots it pretty well. And he plays pretty good defense on the ball,” Wilson said. “He does a little bit of everything that we need. He’s a do-it-all kind of guy.”
That style of play combined with the added leadership could be what catapults the T-Birds to a conference title.
“The conference is super open. It’s wide open. Despite our record so far I think we have a great chance to win the league and get one of those three spots to go to regionals,” Wilson said. “That’s our goal. That’s what we’re pushing for. We’ve played a really tough schedule and other than one game we’ve played with everybody. This group has been fighting hard all season and that’s all I care about.”