Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr. Takes Flight in NBA for Growing Family
NEW YORK CITY -- Derrick Jones Jr. is impossible to ignore on the court. An exceptionally long-limbed wing with the hops to compete in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and earn praise from Vince Carter, “Airplane Mode” lives up to the pseudonym, seemingly skying over opponents when he snatches offensive rebounds or swats a shot. He recently went viral for arguably the dunk of the year, a display of the jumbo-jet-like wingspan that pesters ball-handlers all night long.
Sleep on the undrafted Chester, Pennsylvania native at your own risk; he’ll make you pay and is not afraid to wear his emotions afterwards. Derrick garnered what he calls his “killer mentality” from his earliest days on the playground. But despite what he looks like on the court, he’s much more of a laid-back character, even antithetical to the highlight reel exploits of his NBA counterparts.
“It’s just how I grew up,” Derrick tells CloseUp360 at the Four Seasons hotel in lower Manhattan. “I have to give that to my city that I grew up in. The mentality that I have on the court, it’s just, when I was there playing in the park with my friends and all the older players, it was either you want to win and stay on the court, or you want to lose and you won’t be on the court for another 15-20, maybe 30 minutes… So, I did whatever it took for my team to get the W, and I wasn’t going to sit down and wait for nobody to play.”
Derrick Jones Jr. flies high on the court, but keeps a low profile off of it. (Anthony Votta)
Hoops was a refuge for Derrick and his friends growing up. By the age of 13, he was winning 15 games in a row on the court—when the sound of gunfire wasn’t ringing through the neighborhood. On those scary days, he and his friends would stay home to keep out of trouble.
“We were at the house just playing video games because it was a tough place to live and grow up in, because there was a whole lot of violence wherever you went,” he says. “No matter which way you went down the street, it’s always a problem somewhere in Chester. Me growing up in that environment, it made me the young man that I am now.”
Derrick matured early—not just from his environment, but also from others around him. He grew up around current Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and played with former NBA All-Star Jameer Nelson’s cousin at Archbishop John Carroll High School in Philadelphia. Tyreke Evans making it out of Chester and winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2010 was a huge inspiration for Derrick coming up. These close ties remain a steady guide in Derrick’s career.
“Just knowing that every time I talk to them, they always tell me keep pushing, that I have a bright future. And just hearing that from people that I actually looked up to growing up,” Derrick explains. “It’s a blessing because not a lot of people will have that in their life.”
Another life-changing member of Derrick’s circle: his son, Derrick Jones III, whom Derrick fathered in high school.
“That actually made me mature a lot from what I was in high school, to have the mindset going into college that I have to make this lifestyle a living now,” he recalls. “I have to make this what my job is and know how to take it seriously. I can’t take like no time off, and just knowing that you have a child in high school, your mindset has to change. You can’t be a little immature kid anymore.”
Derrick carried this off-the-court awareness and on-the-court deadliness to the college ranks. Prep prospects will often choose schools based on acclaim or draft chances. Derrick’s process, though, began with his family.
Derrick’s father was a huge fan of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, even dressing young Derrick in Runnin’ Rebels gear at a young age. Derrick already knew his UNLV teammates from different camps, and felt like he got to know their coaches during his visit. That was enough for him.
“It was just books and basketball,” Derrick says. “I went there just knowing that I was going to be a student-athlete. I wasn’t going to be out partying every night and I wasn’t going to be in the clubs doing nothing.”
Derrick’s focus led to an impressive freshman season, in which he averaged 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. He declared for the 2016 NBA draft after one year in Las Vegas, but was not selected.
“I know every person that got drafted before me and that’s one thing that I put that on my checklist,” he says. “Once I play against them, I’m going to show them that they shouldn’t have been drafted before me. When I went undrafted, I didn’t take it to heart. I mean, it is what it is. I knew I was going to find my way regardless. I’m never a quitter. I’m always going to find my way, whatever I do.”
Derrick at the 2015 Maui Jim Maui Invitational during his freshman year at UNLV. (UNLV Web)
Derrick put his killer mentality back to work, securing a training camp spot with the Phoenix Suns in September 2016. He spent most of the 2016-17 season in the G League, though was able to make time to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest over All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, finishing as runner-up to Glenn Robinson III.
After the Suns waived him in early December 2017, Derrick signed a two-way contract with the Miami Heat on New Year’s Eve. He finally began earning steady rotation minutes, and this season, he’s putting those to good use. He’s averaging a sturdy 18.3 minutes a night for the Heat, scoring 7.2 points a night on 51.4 percent shooting.
Though he’s enjoyed the notoriety from both the Dunk Contest and his respected role on the court in South Beach, it’s the growth of his family—including girlfriend, Sherry; Derrick III; their one-year-old son, Prince; and his third son on the way (due April 11)—that has driven Derrick’s lifestyle. And he couldn’t be happier.
“My youngest now… he watches me play ” he describes. “He grabs the controller, acts like he’s playing the game and he runs around the house. We chase him around the house and we just have a whole lot of fun now that he’s walking a lot. It’s just a whole lot of fun when my kids are around me. They always say your kids keep you young and that’s the truth.”
Instead of chilling in hot tubs at DJ Khaled’s Miami mansion or parading through the South Beach nightlife, Derrick mostly keeps busy with his kids at home.
“Why go out when I have my kids with me?” he wonders. “I can have a whole lot of fun with my kids, a whole lot more fun than I would at a club.”
On the road, Derrick always brings his Xbox One console with him, playing NBA 2K19, Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto V, mostly with his brother, Lakeem Johnson. During this particular evening at the Four Seasons, instead of enjoying New York City, Derrick prefers to stay in his room, playing 2K19 as the Heat while talking trash to friends and family members over FaceTime. He takes the game so seriously that he’s always the first player back on defense to protect the rim.
Derrick is also obsessed with GTA 5—so much so that he bought four previous gaming consoles just to beat the game four different times. On this night, he takes his hotel guests on a tour of his GTA 5 world, showing just how serious his virtual reality life is in the game. He owns several mansions, more than 20 cars and motorcycles—all in red, including a few race cars at $2 million a piece (“GTA money,” he says)—and a couple of nightclubs.
In real life, Derrick is now launching his “Airplane Mode” brand and t-shirt—a nickname he acquired during his time with the G League’s Northern Arizona Suns—and dreams of someday having a sponsorship that would come with a private jet. He has an impressive collection of customized sneakers that he travels with, including themes ranging from Miami Vice to Sesame Street and PAW Patrol, as well as dedications to his friends and kids. His on-the-court favorites are specialized colorways of the Kobes, which he shops for at Miami’s Flight Club, the pop-up location that opened in November themed after the famous store in New York City.
Derrick's new "Airplane Mode" logo. (Courtesy of Derrick Jones Jr.)
Elsewhere off the court, Derrick enjoys dominating the bowling lanes and wants to return to Chester to hold basketball camps for the youth in his hometown. But his master plan is as boisterous as one of his skyscraping slams, and as wholesome as a night home with the kids.
“My goal is to just be the best father that I possibly can and raise my kids to be the best young men that they possibly can,” he says. “If I’m able to have a girl soon, then raise her to be the greatest young woman that she possibly can. And with my girl, when we get married, hopefully I can be the greatest husband that I possibly can.”
So while Derrick aspires to be the Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-NBA performer and, eventually, the league’s MVP, the 22-year-old is already well on his way to securing his life’s legacy by way of his family.
Click here to grab a limited "Airplane Mode" t-shirt.
David Vertsberger is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.