The Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones prays when she gets up in the morning. She goes about her day making a concerted effort to recognize the big things we often consider small, like waking up, being able to walk, being able to see, to hear.
During her early car rides to the gym, she has shelved her go-to rap music for gospel. One song in particular she learned from her youth choir back home in the Bahamas especially resonates.
I am grateful for the things that you have done
I am grateful for the victories we've won
I could go on and on and on about your works
Because I'm grateful, grateful, so grateful
Flowing from my heart are the issues of my heart, it's gratefulness
Jones has experienced quite a few victories this season, her fifth in the WNBA. After opting out of the 2020 WNBA campaign due to COVID-19 concerns, she roared back with a new level of dominance this summer and for the Bosnian national team in EuroBasket this past June. Not only is she the favorite to take home WNBA MVP, but as a 6-foot-6 center with guard-like handles, a 3-point shot that went toe-to-toe with one of the league's best shooters and premier rim protection and rebounding prowess, she's practically broken the game of basketball.
As a self-described late bloomer, Jones' ascent atop the sport was steady, then impossible to miss. It was earned, not given. And this year's breakthrough? The product of soaring confidence, of renewed joy on the court and of a gratefulness that's helped her unlock a new level to her game and get back to feeling like herself.
Reaching for the stars
Growing up, Jones watched collegiate women's basketball teams from the United States play in Thanksgiving tournaments in the Bahamas. One time, she turned to her mother, Ettamae, and asked, "You think I'll ever be as good as they are?"
"You'll be just as good," her mother replied. "Or even better."
Jones was the best player on the island by the time she successfully lobbied her parents to let her attend high school in the U.S., where then-Riverdale Baptist coach Diane Richardson became her legal guardian. But when she arrived in Maryland as a gangly 5-foot-8 guard, Jones was a dime a dozen. She still played JV in the 10th grade.
"My goal was just always 'I've got to get better,'" Jones said. "I'm here to play basketball, and I'm on a scholarship. I'm living with my coach. If my grades aren't good and if I don't get better, I go back home. And I always wanted to stay because everything [in the U.S.] is just a way better opportunity. I needed to be here."
Jones got her first college letter going into her junior year. Her exponential development led ESPN to revisit their recruit rankings in the spring of Jones' senior year, what they called "the Jonquel adjustment." Reaching 6 feet 3, she shot up from the No. 36 player in the country to No. 17.
After spending her freshman year at Clemson, Jones transferred to George Washington, where she began to fully understand her WNBA potential. Her incremental progress turned into accolades. After being named the 2015 Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, Jones was the sixth overall pick by the Sun in the 2016 WNBA draft. From there she was named a 2017 WNBA All-Star and the Most Improved Player, followed by the 2018 Sixth Woman of the Year playing behind then-franchise cornerstone Chiney Ogwumike. In 2019, she was the league's rebounding and blocks leader, finished third in MVP voting and spearheaded the Sun's WNBA Finals run.
"She has a unique story," said Sun player development coach Awvee Storey said. "Those experiences give you some kind of wisdom, give you layers, which allow you to really appreciate things even more. And that's what I see in her all the time, every day. She has an amazing smile, an amazing personality. She loves these women and the people that she's working with. Taking a year off, I think it really, really helped her really point out those things that she values and appreciates so much."
A growth in confidence
Spending the 2020 WNBA season at home allowed Jones to mentally and physically reset. But she was also in a different headspace after her past overseas season with UMMC Ekaterinburg, during which she experienced some pain in her personal life. She was so down, she says, that she forgot about all the great things in her life that she had going for her.
On the court, Jones used to be overly critical of herself and dwell too much on her mistakes. That negativity started to fade when basketball became her safe place, her outlet, from the emotional and mental hell she was going through off the court.
"I was so low that when I got on the court, it was just like, 'so what if I f--- up,'" Jones said. "This [crap] feels better than me being out there. It feels better than when I go home and feel like [crap] all day.'
"Life is hard. This is supposed to be beautiful. This is supposed to be fun. So don't take the love out of it by being negative and always being down on yourself."
Since returning to Connecticut, Jones has sought to embody that spirit of gratefulness she'd lost sight of during that rough patch. "When I do that, when I walk into the gym every day, things become easier," she said.
"At the end of the day, this is just a game. And while it makes me very proud to go out there and play my best and win for this organization, there's so many other things that people are going through that when you really think about this, it's just like, go out there and have fun. That's all you should be worried about."
Jones did just that, and as a result played more freely than ever before despite needing to carry the team in the absence of Alyssa Thomas, having the ball in her hands more and playing out of position as a power forward instead of center.
"She's not running from those challenges," Storey said. Instead, she approaches them with what he called "mind-blowing" confidence.
Sun teammate Brionna Jones noticed it as soon as Jonquel arrived in Connecticut and started dunking all the time in practice and warmups.
"I was like, 'Who's this new JJ?" Brionna said. "She's coming in with a new attitude."
Storey routinely pushes Jonquel to get 10 rebounds by the half, turning her into a double-double machine. And when the Sun played at Seattle in May, he challenged Jonquel by telling her she — not defending Finals MVP Breanna Stewart — was the best player on the court. Jonquel was that day, finishing with 28 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks and defense that held Stewart to five points after the first quarter.
Nothing changed when Jonquel left mid-season for EuroBasket, and after leading Bosnia to a historic fifth-place finish behind averages of 24.3 points and 16.8 rebounds per game, her confidence flourished.
Along with earning All-Star and All-Defensive First Team recognition, she closed the regular season fourth in the league in scoring, first in rebounding and one of two players to average a double-double.
"She just comes into every game with this focus and determination," Brionna said. "She knows she's the best player on the court, and she can score at will. She comes onto the court with a different confidence this year, a different swagger."
Eyes on the prize
Jonquel still feels like she has something to prove. She wants to win a championship more than anything else. An MVP trophy without one would be a failure in her eyes.
That chip on her shoulder, that hunger, exists in tandem with a fuller appreciation of everything else in her life, big and small.
"Even when things don't go the way she planned, she [recently] said, 'I have so much more to be grateful for. Why am I focusing on this one particular thing?'" Ettamae said. "Not that it isn't important, but the challenges she faced, she said, 'I'm so blessed. I just need to not focus on anything that's negative and work toward either resolving it or understanding that I have to coexist with it.' The joy comes when we are able to appreciate and see what we really have."
Jonquel thinks back to the song from her youth choir. It closes while repeating, rising to a crescendo: grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.
Jones is grateful for each morning she wakes up. For her family and friends in the Bahamas, her second family in the States, her basketball family in Bosnia that's welcomed her with open arms.
Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.
Of her winding journey from most improved to sixth woman to possible MVP, from the Bahamas to Maryland to South Carolina to D.C., from Korea to China to Russia, and to Connecticut. That she's played for the same franchise her whole WNBA career, somewhere that reminds her of home. That she's been surrounded by teammates who genuinely care about her.
Grateful, grateful, grateful.
For all her blessings. And also for the tough times, because she knows that's what's made her stronger.
It's flowing from her heart.
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