USA Basketball Coaches Corner: James Jones
James Jones, the all-time winningest men’s basketball coach at Yale University served as an assistant coach for the February 2021 USA Basketball Men’s AmeriCup Qualifying Team that won its two games. He also served as an assistant for the 2007 USA Men’s Pan American Games Team and as a court coach for the 2006 USA Men’s U18 National Team Trials.
He is one of the most successful coaches in Ivy League history. The longest tenured coach in the league, he has recorded 333 career victories, which is the second most in league history, and his 180 Ivy wins are the third most in league history.
Jones has guided the Bulldogs to five Ivy League championships (2002, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020), three NCAA Tournament berths (2016, 2019, 2020), and six postseason appearances. His .612 winning percentage in Ivy games is the highest in school history.
Over the last six seasons, Yale compiled a remarkable 63-21 Ivy record, won four league titles and earned three NCAA Tournament berths, including notching the first NCAA victory in school history.
Inducted into New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, he was named the 2019 recipient of the Ben Jobe Award as the top minority coach in Division I men's basketball. He is a three-time Ivy League Coach of the Year (2015, 2016, 2020) and also has been named the NABC District 13 Coach of the Year three times.
In 2019-20, Jones led Yale to 23 victories, tying his 2015-16 team for the most in the modern era of Yale basketball, and an Ivy League championship for the fourth time in the last six years. The Bulldogs were set to play in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 public health threat.
USA Basketball spoke with Jones to get his insight and perspective on coaching.
What things do you try to do to address the challenges of helping to build a team? You do this at Yale in weeks or months, and in just a week or two during your recent AmeriCup Qualifying experience.
Well, I think that the first you need to do is set the tone for the culture, in terms of how we want to approach our daily business – with energy and effort. And you know, guys being on time, and on time is early, making sure you focus. So, I think that's number one, and then you just kind of build out from there what's important to you as a program. For us at Yale, we want to rebound, we want to defend and we want to share the ball, so those are things that we talk about and harp on as we get started.
How do you help players adapt to a new, next level? From high school to college or even U.S. rules to international rules?
Well, for my players, coming from high school, it's a whole different level for them, and there's so much that's unexpected. So, just trying to let them know, and I speak to every freshman in my office every year, to let them know that they're going to hit a brick wall at some point, where things are going to be a lot tougher than they think it's going to be. Practice, and school and having a social life is going to be a little bit harder than it was coming from high school and where you're the best player where you came from. So, just being able to understand that things are going to be a little bit more difficult. That you're going to have to press through and everybody press through, certainly something that's going to be very helpful for us and for them to become effective. And always believe in yourself. Because if you lose your confidence, it's very difficult to be successful.
And if I could just talk a little bit about the USA Basketball experience. It was unbelievable for me how everybody was acclimated to what we were doing on the first day. When you deal with professionals, it's just a whole different ball of wax. You had guys like Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Bass and Joe Johnson, NBA vets. They take everything in stride, and it's just a turn on the page for them.
How has your opinion on what makes a great coach changed since you transitioned from being a player to a coach yourself?
Wow. Okay, so it's funny, because as a player, you don't realize all the things that coaches do for you. That is just not something that you really take into consideration a great deal of time, or at least I didn't when I was a player. And I just told this story to someone recently. You have these epiphanies, as players. And I had, when I was a JV player in high school, my team was very good. I lost my starting job early in the season, but I had gained it back later in the season. And I remember that when the coach called my name to go to the starting lineup, and I changed my jersey from white to blue, which was a starting group, I had this huge smile on my face, because I knew I was going to start. And then the next day, we had a game, and I didn't have a tie that was clean, so I kind of put a scarf around my neck, and I pulled my jacket zipper up, so you really couldn't see it. And we got ready for the game, and I didn't start. And it wasn't till years later, I had this epiphany that the reason why I didn't start, and coach talked about this in the locker room was because I wasn't prepared. I didn't do the little thing. So as a player, you just really don't understand all the things that coaches do for you. He was trying to teach me a lesson in terms of how to handle yourself, and how to be on time and be in early. And if you can't follow directions off the floor, it's hard to follow them on the floor.
What things have you been doing to keep your program active and continuing forward since the Ivy League opted to not have a college basketball season this winter? How are you supporting your program or your team members?
The main thing is most of my guys are home. We only have about three or four guys on campus, and those guys that are on campus we are able to work out, and we're able to stay connected with them. It would be pretty much close to our offseason anyway. Our season pretty much would be over. So, we're kind of doing post-season workouts. So for them, it's not much different, although the fact that they have to watch everybody else play is very difficult for them. But for the guys at home, we Zoom once a week. We've done a lot of equity and inclusion. We do TED Talks, and we break out into rooms, and we have discussions about those Ted Talks subject matters. We talk about things that are going on in the country, climate-wise, from equity and inclusion, which has been great. And then we've done things where we've had some NBA guys come on and talk to our players about what it takes to get to that level. So, there are a lot of things that we've done to try to stay connected. And, you know, I've actually communicated with my guys more in a sense through COVID than I would normally. Like normally in a given summer, we take some weeks off and give our guys some breathing room, but through this entire COVID period, we've been in contact with each one of my players at least once a week.