OKLAHOMA CITY — A year ago, Perry Jones III was considered a can’t-miss NBA draft choice, a sure bet among the top five.
He fell a long way Thursday night, all the way to No. 28 overall. The good news is that the 6-foot-11 Baylor sophomore will join an Oklahoma City Thunder team that just completed an appearance in the NBA Finals.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if they were a contender or not. They are somebody I could see myself playing with,” Jones said at the draft site in New Jersey. “They like to run the floor real well, and they are one of the best teams, and I know I can learn from them.
“What’s better than learning from one of the best teams? They were in the finals. They have great players, great coach. This is just an opportunity for me to grow.”
Jones was particularly excited about the chance to play alongside Kevin Durant, who has won the last three NBA scoring titles.
“He’s my favorite player,” Jones said. “So therefore, for me to be under his wing is going to (do) wonders for me.”
Jones averaged 13.5 points and 7.6 rebounds last season as a sophomore as Baylor made it to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament. Those were remarkably similar numbers to his production from his freshman year, which ended with him deciding to return for another year with the Bears despite the potential to be an early first-round pick.
Part of his slide in the draft was attributed to reports that Jones has an issue with the meniscus in one of his knees, and he was asked if his decision to stay in college may have cost him.
“Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t,” Jones said on television after his selection. “I just know I’m going to play hard for the team I’m playing for right now.”
General manager Sam Presti said the Thunder wouldn’t know if Jones needs surgery on the knee until team doctors are able to examine him but they were pleased with his workout at the NBA draft combine in Chicago.
“We’ve looked at all the information that we’ve had available and we wouldn’t have selected him unless we felt comfortable with all of the information,” Presti said.
Presti had scouted Jones all the way back to his first college practice at Baylor after he was a McDonald’s and Parade All-American out of the Dallas suburb of Duncanville, Texas. He also saw him play against Oklahoma in Norman in January.
“We didn’t enter this draft thinking that Perry Jones would be there at 28 for us,” Presti said.
Although Jones’ production plateaued last season, assistant manager Troy Weaver said the Thunder thought the key was that Baylor’s win total increased.
“Everybody looks at his talent and says, ‘This guy should be dominant,’” Weaver said. “But, as Sam said, this guy plays within teamwork and tries to blend with players and help his team win ballgames.”
Jones joins a team without many immediate needs but he could become an even more valuable piece if the Thunder aren’t able to re-sign NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka, who is eligible for a contract extension starting next month and would be a restricted free agent after next season.
Ibaka, Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and backup point guard Eric Maynor are all in that same category — under contract for next season but up in the air beyond that, with the Thunder trying to figure out who they can afford to keep with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already locked into expensive, long-term deals.
Veteran reserves Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey are unrestricted free agents this summer.
If Mohammed isn’t re-signed, that creates an immediate opening in the frontcourt that could be filled by Jones or Cole Aldrich, the No. 11 pick in the 2010 draft who has played sparingly in his first two NBA seasons.
“I just wanted the opportunity to play anywhere, no matter if I got picked next round,” Jones said. “Whichever team I’m going to, I’m just happy, because that’s the team that I actually like and enjoy watching. I know those guys are going to help me as a player and as a person.”
The Thunder started the night without a second-round pick, having traded it to Minnesota prior to last season to get reserve Lazar Hayward.