After the Lakers’ 113-109 win over the Utah Jazz, Jemerrio Jones walked up to coach Luke Walton to thank him for the opportunity. He’s done it in each of the last five games — every time he’s had the pleasure of playing in the NBA.
“He means it,” Walton said. “He’s very thankful for the opportunity to play and that’s just the type of guy that he is.”
When will he stop?
“When they give me more than 10 days,” said Jones, who was called up from the G League on March 30. As he said it a locker room full of teammates heard and started laughing, accustomed to Jones’ stark honesty.
“This is just the 10 days right here. Quit playing. I’m just gonna take advantage of it. That’s why I say I appreciate the opportunity,” he added.
Jones, who says he’s 6-feet-5 with shoes on, made his first NBA start Sunday evening at Staples Center. He played 37 minutes and did what he does best — rebound. Jones grabbed 16 rebounds to go with five points and five assists. It was the first time a Laker had 16 or more rebounds in his starting debut since the NBA started tracking starters’ statistics in the 1970-71 season.
To play in the NBA was an opportunity Jones got long before he thought he would, and there’s not a moment of it he takes for granted.
His energy was part of why, for a second straight game, the Lakers (37-44), fueled by a group of players who are either on one-year contracts or who spent much of the season on the Lakers’ developmental team, proved problematic for a Western Conference team fighting for playoff seeding. On Friday, they beat the Clippers, who might now fall to the dreaded eighth seed and have to face the Golden State Warriors in the first round. On Sunday, they damaged Utah’s chase for the fourth seed.
“I feel like we’re playing out there with a little bit of jealousy,” JaVale McGee said. “Kind of mad you guys are in the playoffs and we’re not, so we’re going to mess up y’all bracket just for the hell of it.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the Lakers with 32 points and McGee scored 22 points with eight rebounds; both are on one-year deals. Alex Caruso scored 18 points with 11 assists and Johnathan Williams added 14 points and eight rebounds; both are two-way players.
The Jazz (49-31) were led by Rudy Gobert, who scored 21 points with 10 rebounds and Donovan Mitchell, who scored 19 points.
As they have been for weeks, the Lakers were severely shorthanded. LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart have been shelved due to injuries, and Reggie Bullock, Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson also didn’t play.
That meant a starting lineup of Jones, Caruso, Caldwell-Pope, McGee and Mike Muscala and a rotation of just eight players.It’s a group that has played with fight in these last few days of a lost Lakers season.
“It’s great to watch the game being played when you just have guys out there giving it their all and no agenda other than to try to win the game,” Walton said.
They led by seven after one quarter, punching first. The Jazz recovered in the second quarter to take a five-point lead into halftime, but the Lakers weren’t conceding. Utah’s lead fell to three after three quarters, and in the fourth the Lakers took control behind Caldwell-Pope’s 18 points in the quarter.
Early in the third quarter Jones grabbed a defensive rebound that McGee also eyed. Propelled by momentum, McGee collided with Jones and threw his arms around him to make sure not to knock him over. Jones grinned.
“He reminds me of Tony Allen,” McGee said.
With fewer than five minutes left in the game, Mitchell thought he had an easy layup. But as he released the ball, Jones was there. He blocked Mitchell’s shot and shouted toward the crowd. Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” played, as it often does after blocks, the lyric “sit down, be humble” directed at the victim of said block.
In that moment though, the name of the song also could have described the man blocking the shot.