When she goes back to work kid camps at her high school in the Bay Area, Stanford women’s basketball star Haley Jones has a tendency to confuse all the little girls who want to be like her.
“What position do you play?” they’ll ask Jones.
“I play everything!” She tells them. “I’m just a basketball player.”
The next generation of ballers is hardly impressed.
“But why don’t you pick a position?” They’ll press. “Don’t you have a favorite?”
Nah, she’ll tell them. She likes being able to do it all.
Not a true point guard, true wing or true post player, the 6-foot-1 Jones does a little bit of everything — or rather, a lot of everything — for the top-seeded Cardinal, which meets fellow No. 1 seed South Carolina on Friday in the first national semifinal of the women’s NCAA Tournament. On a team loaded with depth and talent, Jones stands out.
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Stanford guard Haley Jones (30) has drawn comparisons to Draymond Green and Magic Johnson for her court vision, and is the toughest matchup in the women's NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Eric Gay, AP)
“She’s a unicorn,” says Stanford assistant Kate Paye. “She’s just incredibly gifted with her size, vision, basketball IQ. She’s a tough matchup. She really gives us an added dimension.”
“She wears many hats that impact the game,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. The stat sheet confirms that, as Jones averages 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
But Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer might have summed it up best when she referred to Jones as “the future of our game.”
For years under VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer, Stanford ran the triangle offense, a system popularized by Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and a guy named Michael Jordan. It’s a fitting offense for back-to-the-basket bigs who can score on the block and pass to shooters on the perimeter. But over the last few years, as traditional bigs have become rarer and rarer at every level of basketball, VanDerveer and the Cardinal have moved to more of a Princeton-style offense.
Predicated on player movement and great decision-making, the Princeton offense — or at least Stanford’s adaptation of it— is ideal for a high IQ team that understands angles, cuts and how to exploit mismatches. And it’s especially perfect for Jones, the ultimate mismatch and maybe the only true positionless player in women’s hoops.
It makes sense, says ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli, that women’s basketball is “trending in this direction” of positionless players.
“The bottom line is, whatever the NBA is doing, we’re doing, too,” she says. “It’s all trickling into our game.”
Compared to NBA All-Stars Draymond Green, Magic Johnson
The best comparison for Jones is likely the NBA’s Draymond Green from Golden State, a 6-foot-6 point-forward who has recorded 27 triple-doubles over the course of his eight-year professional career and currently averages 6.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists. (Jones is still waiting to tally her first triple-double.)
Throughout the Warriors’ run where they made five consecutive Finals appearances and won three titles, Green’s ability to run the break and control pace as a forward unlocked the (extraordinary) talents of Golden State’s perimeter players in the kind of way that made them virtually impossible to guard.
Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) handles the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies during a game on March 19, 2021. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Jones' coaches praise both her vision and how smooth she is around the rim, saying she sometimes reminds them of Magic Johnson. She understands exactly who needs the ball, when and how to deliver it.
But Antonelli thinks there’s another comparison, if people can check their recency bias and travel back to the 1980s.
First, Antonelli says, it’s important to understand the difference between a stretch 4 — someone who can pick and pop a 3 — versus a hybrid 4, who can “not only make those decisions but can actually do it all: shoot, pass, dribble, put it on the floor and drive to the basket, get into high-low action easily.”
Former USC star Cheryl Miller was “the original hybrid 4,” Antonelli says. Arguably the best women’s player of all time, Miller won three Naismith player of the year awards, two NCAA titles and scored 3,018 points at USC from 1982-86 — and that was without the 3-point line. Her dominance of the women’s game is often lost on a society that values and thinks only of what’s new and shiny.
“She could do it all,” Antonelli says of Miller. “She could do everything a hybrid 4 could do, plus she was dunking long before anyone else. She was long and bouncy, could get it off the glass and just motor up the floor.”
Grabbing a defensive rebound and leading the break — as opposed to needing an outlet — is where Jones shines, too. And while other bigs who can bring the ball up the floor typically hand off to a guard and head for the block, Jones gets right into Stanford’s free-flowing offense. If forced to label herself, she’d say she’s a point-forward.
In the same way that Green helps Warriors guard Steph Curry get good looks and feel less pressure to be the primary playmaker because of Green’s superior vision, Jones does the same in setting up her teammates, particularly Cardinal guard Kiana Williams. Williams actually leads the team in assists, with 95 but Jones is just behind her at 89; it’s often Jones who recognizes, creates and directs how to get the best look, even if she doesn’t actually record the assist.
Haley Jones of Stanford is a mismatch waiting to happen, and she makes defenders pay for it. (Photo: Carmen Mandato, Getty Images)
VanDerveer likes to call her group “an orchestra, with a different soloist every night.” And there’s no question who the conductor is.
Jones doesn’t watch enough NBA to know if she agrees with the comparison, but she’s familiar enough with Green’s game to understand he’s “the X-factor” every time he steps on the floor. She wants to be the same.
She honed her wide skillset as a child: When she was young she often played with older players, and being the smallest one on the floor automatically made you the ballhandler. Reunited with her age group in middle school, Jones worked hard to develop a low post game.
Now she lets the defense dictate where she goes. Should a bigger post try to pick her up full court, she’s likely taking them all the way to the rim. If a smaller, quicker guard matches up with her, Jones cuts and finds herself on the block (she shoots 53.4% from the field).
VanDerveer says there are similarities between Jones and former Stanford All-American Nicole Powell (2000-04), who held the Pac-12 triple-double record until Sabrina Ionescu came along. But Jones separates herself partially because of what the Cardinal runs now.
That was also part of why Jones, the No. 1 player in the 2018 class, picked Stanford: She saw herself thriving in the Cardinal’s offense, even if she’d have to learn it from every position, a task she described as “horrible” as a freshman. But once she found her rhythm, she thrived. Before an ACL tear cut her freshman season short, Jones averaged 11.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists, and was just learning how to take over games. Inspired by Kevin Durant and Breanna Stewart, her two favorite players, Jones wanted to be part of a program, and a system, where she wouldn’t be boxed into one role or one position.
And while she’s not ready to call herself a revolutionary just yet, Jones likes what she sees when she walks into AAU gyms now.
“I see a lot more girls coming up who are long, lanky players,” she says. “In the past, they would have just been thrown into the post because of their size. But now they’re bringing the ball up the floor, playing out on the wing and I just love it.
“It makes the game so much more fun. Who wants to be limited?”
Follow national correspondent on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell.
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