PORTLAND, Ore. — Moments after the Chicago Bulls, Trail Blazers and Cavaliers agreed to the three-team sign-and-trade that sent Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland, Derrick Jones Jr.’s cell phone buzzed.
On the other end was Bulls coach Billy Donovan, reaching out to welcome the rangy sixth-year forward to the organization.
The call went to voicemail.
“It's crazy I was actually lifting weights when he called me,” Jones Jr. told NBC Sports Chicago after the team’s Wednesday morning shootaround in Portland. “So I wasn't able to answer.”
That speaks to the initial surprise Jones Jr. felt about being dealt by the Trail Blazers, who signed him to a two-year, $19 million contract in the 2020 offseason. He began his lone season in Portland as a starter, but by the postseason was relegated from the rotation — a development he says he still doesn’t fully understand.
But the conversation Donovan and Jones Jr. had after eventually connecting laid the groundwork for what Jones Jr. says has been a trusting relationship.
“Once I got to speak to Coach, he was speaking highly of me,” Jones Jr. said. “When he was [coaching the Thunder] and Russ (Westbrook) was there, it was my rookie year (with the Phoenix Suns), and I was picking Russ up full-court. Coach told me he liked what he seen when I was younger. So I was excited to get up to Chicago and the team that we had. I just couldn't wait, really.”
Jones Jr., though, had to wait a while for a role to open for him in Chicago. An ankle injury sidelined him for half of the preseason, and he began the regular season out of Donovan’s rotation, a decision he said the Bulls’ coach came to him personally to relay.
“That's just the person that Coach is,” Jones Jr. said of Donovan’s communication. “He likes to have everybody in the loop and you know what your role is, and that's all I need. That's what everybody in the basketball world wants.”
So he stayed ready. And now — with Nikola Vučević in COVID-19 protocol, Patrick Williams possibly sidelined for the rest of the regular season and Alize Johnson in and out of the rotation — his role is growing.
Since returning to the rotation nine games ago, Jones Jr. is playing key reserve minutes for a team off a torrid 10-4 start, guarding the likes of Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant, hunting deflections with his 7-foot wingspan and skying for eye-popping above-the-rim finishes on cuts, rim-rolls and transition run-outs. He's averaging 7.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game in that span, and in a recent wrinkle, even successfully manning minutes as the team’s backup center.
“Growing up as a kid I was always one of the biggest players on my team. So some of my teams growing up I was the five-man (center),” Jones Jr. said. “And throughout my career I've been in situations where I've had to play the small-ball four (power forward) and set screens and get to the rim and I had a pick-and-pop five-man on my team. So I understand how to play in that situation.”
On overcoming the size disadvantage he faces at that position, he added: “Just make it hard for them (bigger centers). I have my advantages. I'm lower to the ground and a little bit quicker than some bigs. So that's just what I gotta do, use my speed and my athleticism to get stops.”
Jones Jr. entered the NBA, he said, as a shooting guard with the Suns, but in his three years with the Heat and one with the Trail Blazers has slid further and further up the positional scale. Donovan often lauds his length, athleticism and defensive versatility, particularly his ability to switch ball-screens.
“I was 6-foot-5, 180 (pounds). I was a two/three (shooting guard/small forward),” Jones Jr. said of his rookie year. “I grew a little bit, gained some weight, which sent me to the three. And then it was three/four. And now it's four/five.
“Me personally, I'm not tripping. I love being on the floor, so any opportunity I get to be out there and just be able to contribute to winning and competing that's all I want to do. I'm a competitor at the end of the day. I don't care if I have to guard a five or a guard.”
On a day he returns to face the team that signed, sequestered, then shipped him away, Jones Jr. is also unconcerned with why those opportunities never fully came to fruition in Portland. He said he “loved every second” of his time with his Trail Blazers teammates, pointing specifically to Damian Lillard, who first texted Jones Jr. when he was initially signed and when he was eventually traded.
But he’s also glad to be where he is.
“Happy,” Jones Jr. said of his headspace. “I mean, I was happy last season until the things happened that happened. But it really doesn't matter anymore. What happened is the past. I'm just happy where I'm at right now, I'm trying to live in this moment and just be the best version of me that I can be.
“Life happens, things in life happen, so I can't just sit up there and dwell on something that happened in the past. That's when I lose focus of my present and looking toward my future.”
Aiding in that process, he said, is a team culture with the Bulls built on selflessness. That's been apparent in the team's on-court playstyle and off-court personality, where raucous bench celebrations have become a pattern.
“We just love being around each other, honestly. This is probably one of the first groups that I've been with that we just love being around each other,” Jones Jr. said. “One thing I learned from Miami is just to enjoy others' success. And that's what our team does.”