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BROOKLYN – Derrick Jones Jr. just looks like a defender. He’s 6 feet 7, all arms and legs, as athletic as anyone you’ll find his size in the NBA.

“He’s very long, you know,” Suns teammate Leandro Barbosa said. “And he’s very skinny. That helps him get through picks. And he has a lot of energy.”

Not long ago, coach Earl Watson pretty much laid out Jones’ career path. If he’s going to survive in the NBA, the 20-year-old rookie would have to become a strong defender. Someone in the mold of Stacey Augmon, a defensive specialist who played 15 NBA seasons.

Since then, this project has been put in motion, with Jones pressuring the league’s top point guards, among them Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who memorably reminded Jones of his place with a dead-ball shove; Portland’s Damian Lillard; and in Tuesday’s loss, Miami’s Goran Dragic.

Jones embraces this role. After Tuesday’s loss – the Suns’ fifth in a row – the UNLV product sat at his locker and said he wanted to be a lockdown defender, a future NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s still figuring out what it takes to get there, still developing the mindset to match his athletic gifts.

RELATED: Suns short-handed again, drop 5th straight with loss to Heat

Earlier this season on a trip to Phoenix, Clippers coach Doc Rivers outlined what it takes to be a great perimeter defender. It starts, he said, with a nose for the ball. Yes, that’s a basketball cliché, but it’s not what Rivers meant. If you watch great defenders on video, he said, “it looks like literally their nose is near the ball.” (The next time the Suns play, watch rookie point guard Tyler Ulis, who was the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year last season. His nose is near the ball.)

“You have to have great hands,” Rivers continued. “And the last thing is, they’re hard-headed. All great defenders have to be very stubborn. You can score on them and (they think), ‘I’ll be back the next play.’ The weak defenders, they get scored on and they get despondent and they stop. The great defenders, they keep coming at you.”

Jones has flashed these qualities in spots, but not consistently. He has great timing, reflected during a recent five-game stretch in which he blocked seven shots, no small feat for a perimeter defender. But he also has fouled too much. Entering Thursday’s contest against the Brooklyn Nets, Jones fouled 6.0 times per 100 possessions, more than any other Phoenix perimeter defender.

“I think for him, it’s watching film,” forward Jared Dudley said. “He’s getting some cheap fouls just because … he has to (understand) personnel. He has all the tools with his size and his leaps. But, man, Derrick would be, what, a sophomore in college? It’s tough. You can try to make someone into (a great defender) but overall you have to master your ability, you got to do film study and then you have to have that grit of a Patrick Beverley or a Ronnie Price-type. And that’s something we’ll find out in the next couple years if he can develop.”

To Watson, this is the best thing about this post-All-Star break evaluation, one in which three rotation players have been shut down. It’s sink or swim. Not long ago, Jones was in the developmental league. Now he’s checking Westbrook. And for the record, Jones shoved back during that brief exchange March 3 in Phoenix.

“He’ll learn and grow and continue to get better as he gets stronger and picks up tendencies of players, but through experience is the best way,” Watson said.

RELATED: Watson on UCLA rumor: My focus is here

One last thing: On the offensive end, Jones has shown he can score in transition and off lobs, but in 255 minutes, he has fired just one 3-pointer, and this drives Barbosa crazy.

“I always tell him that he needs to shoot a couple 3s or maybe one dribble and the pull-up in the mid-range,” the veteran guard said after Tuesday’s loss. “We work on that and I told him, ‘If you don’t take two (3-point) shots during the game, I’m going to take your per diem.’”

Against the Heat, Jones didn’t attempt a 3.

“He’s in trouble,” Barbosa said. “At least two, and he shot not even one, so he’s got to learn – in a good way or a bad way.”

For now, Jones remains defensively determined.

“I take on every challenge that they give me,” he said. “I never back down from a challenge, ever. You’ll never see me do that. It doesn’t matter who the player is or what their stat line shows, I’m going to go out and give it my all and do my best to stop them.”

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller

Thursday’s game

Suns at Nets

When: 4:30 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

TV/radio: FSAZ+/KTAR FM 98.7.

Brooklyn update: The Nets, the NBA’s worst team for the entire season, have played better. They still have the league’s worst record at 14-56, but they’re 5-7 this month and they’re coming off Tuesday’s 98-96 win over Detroit. Brook Lopez beat the buzzer with an off-balance jumper in that one. Overall, he averages 20.8 points and 5.2 rebounds.


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