By Chris Dortch
Jordan Bone was once the scourge of a pee-wee football league in Nashville.
Many years before he was handed the controls of the No. 1 college basketball team in the country, five-year-old Bone played quarterback on a team that didn’t have an extensive playbook. It didn’t need one.
Bone had two primary options. The first was to hand the ball to his running back, a small kid his teammates called “Mighty Mouse.” Chris Rowland was a blur, one reason he’s still playing football today—as a 5-foot-8 All-American receiver/kick returner for Tennessee State. When Bone wanted to mix things up a bit, he would call his own number. If Rowland was fast, well, Bone left defenders grasping at air on his frequent forays to the end zone.
“Nobody could ever catch him,” says his older brother Josh Bone, who played basketball at Tennessee for two years (2009-11) in the Bruce Pearl era and is now the video coordinator on coach Penny Collins’ first-year staff at Tennessee State. “He’d score touchdowns every time. That’s when we realized how fast he was. That’s when we knew he was special.”
That speed came in handy in another sport—over the course of several years, Jordan Bone won scads of ribbons and trophies in track and field. But as much as Bone loved winning races and scoring touchdowns, football and track were far too late to claim his affection and attention. In part because Josh Bone and another brother, Jaryn, played basketball, that would be the sport the younger Bone would pursue.
“I started playing basketball when I was four,” Jordan Bone says. “Because I loved it. It brought a lot of joy to me as a kid. I didn’t really understand the game back then. I just knew I had fun. I always wanted to have fun.”
Getting Serious about Basketball
Bone’s parents—his father, Joshua, Sr., played basketball at Berry College and his mother Karen ran track in high school—and brothers let him have his fun with other sports for a while, and then it came time for basketball to move to the forefront. In order for Bone to excel at the game, it was decided in a family meeting, he would have to make it a single-minded pursuit. Much to the dismay of the football coaches at The Ensworth School, where Bone played high school basketball, he gave up the gridiron and vowed to become good enough in hoops that his parents wouldn’t have to pay for college.
Bone’s training began in the family driveway, where he and his brothers would battle in games of one on one, or if a friend came over, two on two.
“Josh has always been my role model, and Jaryn … those guys have been with me since day one,” Bone says. “I can remember us competing, always competing. I was the smallest one, and my brothers knew they had to be rough on me to toughen me up.”
As a freshman and sophomore at Ensworth, Bone played on consecutive state championship teams. Assuming a larger role as a junior, he led Ensworth to the state semifinals in 2015. In his senior season, Ensworth advanced to the state title game as Bone averaged 20 points, five assists and two steals and was a Division II all-state pick and a finalist for the state’s Mr. Basketball Award.
Despite that success, power conference schools—and recruiting analysts—weren’t convinced Bone, then a scrawny 6-1 and about 165 pounds, could play at the highest level of college basketball. It didn’t help matters that he played AAU basketball on a loaded Memphis team (Team Thad) that included Lagerald Vick (Kansas), Jaylen Fisher (TCU), Nick Marshall (who started his career at the University of Memphis) and Nathan Hoover (Wofford).
“It was tough trying to get noticed,” Bone says. “Tough being a Nashvillian on a Memphis [AAU] squad. But I had to grind through that. I made the best of it.”
Joining the Nucleus of a Winning Program
When Tennessee associate coach Rob Lanier—in his first week on the job—first saw Bone play in New Orleans in April 2015, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. “He was the fastest point guard I saw [in the spring and summer recruiting periods],” Lanier says. “His brother played at Tennessee. For us, he was a great fit.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes remembers the day Lanier reported back with news about Bone. The Tennessee staff—having replaced former coach Donnie Tyndall after a disastrous one-year stopover—was hurriedly trying to build relationships with players and their parents, high school coaches and AAU coaches and recruit a class that would form the nucleus of a program.
A point guard had to be a key component of that nucleus. When Barnes was at Texas, he was noted for recruiting and developing outstanding players to run his team. T.J. Ford played for Barnes. So did D.J. Augustine. Barnes wanted a player like them.
“I remember when coach Lanier went to go watch some other players and he came back and said, ‘coach, I saw this kid I think is going to be better than all of them,’ ” Barnes said at one of his recent weekly press conferences. “And he was talking about Jordan Bone. “From the time we went to see him play and met him, there was no doubt that was the commitment we wanted to make to him above all of the other players we were recruiting.”
Bone was just as enamored of Barnes and Tennessee. He was already predisposed to love the school, having come to watch his brother play during a couple of Bruce Pearl’s most successful seasons, one of them a run to the Elite Eight in 2010. He loved the atmosphere in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Bone’s stock rose as Tennessee’s interest in him began circulating. If the man that coached Ford and Augustine wanted Bone, maybe there was something power conference schools were overlooking. Bone was quickly flooded with offers, eventually trimmed his list to five and set up official visits.
But one visit was all he needed.
“We brought in [four] guys on one visit [including eventual Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Grant Williams; Josh Okogie, who played for Georgia Tech and is now in the NBA; and De’Riante Jenkins, now at VCU] and said to them, ‘this is who we want to build the program with,’ ” Barnes said. “And that day, I remember Jordan Bone was the first that said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ ”
Playing Point Guard for Rick Barnes
Little did Bone realize at the time he committed, but he was in for a rough couple of seasons. Barnes is relentless in extracting the most from his players, but he saves extra attention for his point guard. Bone had been toughened physically by his older brothers and had come from a high school program where competing for state championships was expected. But from a mental standpoint, he wasn’t prepared for Barnes.
The early part of Bone’s freshman season was derailed after he injured his left foot and missed nine non-conference games. That didn’t stop him from eventually leading the Vols in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio (in SEC games). When he went off for 23 points against Vanderbilt—making 8 of 12 shots from the field and 4 of 5 from three-point range—in the first game he played in his home town, Bone looked like a rising star.
But there were tough times. When Bone made mistakes—and there were plenty—Barnes let him know about them in no uncertain terms.
“I’ve always been a tough kid,” Bone says. “But sometimes, I would be like ‘God, why is this guy so hard on me? I never understood because I’d never had anybody push me the way he does. I would always take things so personally.”
Josh Bone, who played two seasons at Southern Illinois and two at Tennessee, did his best to console his brother, but knew Barnes’ harsh criticism was by design.
“He was immature,” Josh Bone says. “He needed to grow up and learn to take criticism from his coaches.”
One day, during one of their frequent phone conversations, Josh Bone gave his little brother some advice he needed.
“He told me coach Barnes is always hardest on the players he sees a bright future for,” Jordan Bone says. “He told me to just stick with it. It’s a process.”
As a sophomore, Bone improved most of his key statistics except his scoring average, nearly doubling his assist total from the year before and finishing with a 2.82 assist-to-turnover ratio, second in the SEC and 16thin the country. But he wasn’t immune from Barnes’ wrath. In some games, Bone would start out strong offensively, quickly reaching double figures, but barely play in the second half, maybe because he wasn’t focused, or because his defense was lacking.
Barnes was still trying to get his point guard’s attention, even as Bone, along with fellow sophomores Williams, Bowden and Lamonte Turner and juniors Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield, helped lead Tennessee to a 26-9 record and a trip to the NCAA tournament that proved short lived, providing Barnes with an invaluable teaching moment.
How a Good Point Guard Became a Great One
It was a bitter disappointment last March when the Vols lost to Loyola Chicago in the NCAA’s second round. But none of them took it harder than Bone, who didn’t close out fast enough on the Ramblers’ Clayton Custer, whose jump shot with 3.6 seconds left provided the margin of victory.
Bone’s own chance at a game-winning shot fell short as the buzzer sounded.
The loss was devastating then, but a case could be made that it was the catalyst for the historic season the Vols are putting together in 2018-19. Williams is a heavy favorite to once again become SEC Player of the Year, and Schofield has steadily risen up NBA Draft boards, but Bone has become just as important as the Vols (22-1, 10-0 SEC) have smashed a century-old school record by winning 18 straight games and ranked No. 1 in both major polls for four consecutive weeks.
Through 23 games, Bone leads the SEC and is 10thin the nation in assists (6.6 apg) and leads the SEC and is ninth in Division I in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s nearly doubled his career scoring average (7.25 to 13.5), and after shooting a combined .381 from the field in his first two seasons, he’s shooting .461 now.
A big reason can be traced back to those pee-wee league football games a five-year-old Bone dominated with his speed. He’s finally learned to harness his gift. There are few players in the country who can keep up with Bone, much less stay in front of him.
“Coach Barnes is always yelling at Jordan ‘go, go, go,’ ” Lanier says. “The [opposing team’s] scouting report, if they’re worried about anything about you, it’s your speed. Our system is built to allow you to take advantage of that weapon you have.”
With Bone at the controls, Tennessee has become a dangerous team in transition. Often, Bone grabs a defensive rebound or takes a pass from a teammate and races the length of the floor, slicing through the defense en route to an easy layup.
In the half court, Barnes has encouraged Bone to attack from the elbows. With Williams or another post player under the basket and wing shooters in the corners, Bone has options. Barnes always wants a paint touch, whether it’s an entry pass to Williams or Bone darting into the lane, where he’s going to score or get fouled. If the lane is clogged, Bone has become adept at finding teammates for open jump shots.
And this season, another weapon has emerged—every player on Tennessee’s starting five is adept at making mid-range jump shots. After launching thousands of shots over the summer, Bone’s 10- to 15-foot jumper is as close to automatic and un-guardable as any shot in his arsenal. Teams are so afraid of his speed and him getting to the rim he can come to an abrupt stop and pull up for an uncontested shot.
“Coach Barnes had really challenged me to stay in the gym and make tons of shots,” Bone says. “Just get confidence from seeing the ball going in all the time. Teams are already playing back on their heels. When I pull up, it’s an uncontested, wide-open shot every time. I’ve worked hard on that—dribbling full speed, stopping on a dime.
“It’s kind of like a [Russell] Westbrook shot. He’s at full speed in transition and guys are so worried about him getting to the rim, he just pulls up and it’s a wide-open shot. I’ve worked on that thousands of times.”
Bone’s reference to Westbrook wasn’t accidental. After getting burned by Custer in the Loyola game, he went back to Knoxville and began watching film of the game’s great point guards.
“Loyola is what really motivated me,” Bone says. “I took that loss very hard. So I started studying the game much differently and watching a lot of NBA guards like Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul. Watching their awareness, their poise. Those guys are never rattled, no matter who’s guarding them.
“I’ve noticed how they attack certain situations, offensively and defensively. I thought to myself, ‘man, this is where I want to be.’ ”
Bone’s defense—on or off the ball—has been an important component to his improvement, and a big reason he’s averaging 32.4 minutes a game, sixth in the SEC after playing 19.6 as a freshman and 23.3 a year ago. Barnes trusts him to defend and thus keeps him on the floor.
More important, Barnes trusts Bone with the keys to the engine.
“Some of that can be attributed to time and experience,” Lanier says. “The game is starting to slow down for Jordan. For the majority of his time here, he’s tried to do what coach tells him to do because coach told him to do it, and not because he understands it or grasps it. It’s like ‘coach told me to go from Point A to Point B, and I’m just going to do that and get out of harm’s way.
“It used to be if he didn’t do something correctly, he didn’t understand why he was being corrected. Now, when you correct him, he already knows what you’re going to say. Now he understands what he’s doing, what we’re doing, and he verbalizes that to his teammates.”
Barnes couldn’t help but notice that latter point during a hard-fought win at Texas A&M on Feb. 2, when, during a time out Bone spoke up. In the past, he had deferred to the team’s vocal leaders, Schofield and Williams.
“I haven’t seen him do that ever,” Barnes said. “[A day after the Texas A&M game] I asked him what got into him, and he just said ‘coach, I’m learning,’ and that pretty much defines what he’s done since he’s been here. He’s always wanted to learn—he’s never been against teaching.
“I’m not sure he’s ever truly understood his talent the way we see it. I don’t think he’s ever understood the game other than when we do things, he does it because we say what’s supposed to be done. Now he’s starting to understand why it’s all happening and why it’s all supposed to come together.”
As much as he’s improved, Bone has more weapons in his arsenal. His teammates and coaches wonder why he hasn’t unleashed his 40-inch vertical leap more often.
“Every now and then, in practice, Jordan will go up and dunk one, and guys will say, ‘what the hell? Where did that come from?’ ” Lanier says.
In his job at Tennessee State, Josh Bone has gotten a chance to see the man many NBA scouts believe is the best and most athletic point guard in the 2019 draft, Murray State’s Ja Morant.
“Ja Morant is a special, special player,” Josh Bone says. “He’s free and creative, super athletic. A real pleasure to watch. “But Ja and Jordan, I think they have more similarities than people think. They’re around the same height. Both are extremely athletic and see the floor. Jordan’s got [his leaping ability] in his back pocket. It’s something he hasn’t shown too much of. But it’s there.”
Opposing coaches have taken notice of Bone’s improvement. Few have seen it up close any more than Florida’s Mike White, whose team has played—and lost to—the Vols twice this season.
“He is the best point guard in our league,” White said after the Gators’ loss in Knoxville on Feb. 9. “Why? Because he is leading the No. 1 team in the country. He is a solid defensive point guard. He doesn’t turn the ball over. He takes great shots. He shoots at a high percentage. He always brings pressure on defense, both on the ball and off the ball. He is a good cutter. He is a great ball handler. He uses ball screens. He is a kid that plays with tremendous intensity and always a chip on his shoulder. He’s terrific.”
Bone has made such strides the NBA is beginning to pay attention. But his older brothers and parents have helped him tune out any interference, and his coaches, especially Barnes, are always going to make sure he’s focusing on the moment. Not that Bone has to be convinced.
“I still have a lot of [college] basketball to play,” Bone says. “My goal, our team’s goal, is to just getter better every day. If we can do that, and not look behind us and not look too far ahead, we’re going to be right there [in the NCAA tournament]. We believe we can win it all.”
If that happens, it’ll be because Rob Lanier was astute enough to see Bone’s potential back in the spring of 2015. Most successful teams are only as good as their point guard. And Tennessee has one that is among the 10 finalists for the 2019 Bob Cousy Award, given to the best lead guard in the country.
It’s fitting that Lanier has the last word on Bone.
“When he’s locked in,” Lanier says. “He’s as good as there is.”
Chris Dortch is the editor and publisher of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbookand a contributor focusing on the NBA Draft for NBA.com and NBA TV.