Nuggets Assistant Coach Popeye Jones brings positive attitude and extensive experience to the Mile High City
When then-Denver Nuggets big man Ronald Jerome “Popeye” Jones approached Colorado Avalanche legend Joe Sakic in a shared weight room inside Pepsi Center one day during the 1999-2000 season, little did he know the impact that conversation would have on his family’s life.
“My kids had just started playing hockey. I saw him (Sakic) and went up and asked him, ‘what do I need to do?’” Jones told Nuggets.com. “He just looked down at me and looked up and said, ‘they're going to be big, so make sure they know how to skate and get them skating lessons.’”
Jones ran home and told his sons, Seth and Caleb, that he met Sakic and the advice he received.
“Right away they started getting really interested in taking skating lessons, and they kind of just ran with it and really started working at that sport.”
Both Seth and Caleb are in the NHL on the Chicago Blackhawks, with Seth having been the fourth overall pick in the 2013 Draft, while Caleb joined his brother in the NHL after being drafted in 2015.
Now Jones returns to Denver as an assistant on Michael Malone’s staff after previously holding the same role on the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets (2010-2013), Indiana Pacers (2013-2020), and Philadelphia 76ers (2020-2021).
Following his 11-year career in the league where Jones established himself as a quality rebounder and hustle player in the frontcourt, Jones turned to coaching, beginning with a player development role with the Dallas Mavericks before being hired by the Nets in 2010.
Following three seasons with the Nets, Jones was on the move looking for his next role, which introduced him to Michael Malone.
During the 2013 offseason, Malone was hired as the new head coach of the Sacramento Kings, which led to the two coaches crossing paths.
“The first thing people don't know, I interviewed with Coach Malone when he was in Sacramento,” Jones revealed when asked about his interest in joining Denver’s coaching staff.
Although Sacramento went in another direction back in 2013 and Jones eventually landed with the Pacers, the connection was made which helped ease the decision-making process for Jones this time around.
“He (Malone) said he was looking for an experienced coach, and I've been doing it a long time now,” Jones explained. “And, you know, he really didn't say I’d coach one side of the ball, and I always saw myself as a coach who can coach both sides of the ball.”
Jones fills the opening created by Wes Unseld Jr.’s departure to become the head coach of the Washington Wizards and will provide unique insight for Denver’s roster as a former player and coach that has worked in numerous areas around the league over the past decade.
Plus, it didn’t hurt that Jones has been, and continues to be very fond of the Mile High City.
“I lived in Denver for eight years, my kids started playing hockey in Denver, really love the area, and then also obviously playing for the franchise,” Jones said. “So (there was) a lot of interest in coming back.”
Jones held his second wedding in Beaver Creek and continues to return to the area each summer. “We love Denver and every year in the summer we come back and vacation in the mountains, usually the Beaver Creek area, which is probably one of my favorite areas in the world.
So, I’m looking forward to going there after Summer League and spending about a week out at Beaver Creek, going hiking and playing some golf.”
“You’ve got to bring a lot of positive energy”
As a former player that has also been a coach for over a decade, Jones has adjusted his approach to coaching as time has gone on, evolving as the game has done just that both on and off the court.
One thing that can’t be said about the 51-year-old is that he doesn’t put in the work. The Dresden, Tennessee native spends his fair share of time in the film room, an aspect of the job he truly enjoys.
“I like watching video,” Jones said. “I like working on video with the players telling them you know, things that they could do better.”
When working with players, Jones’ positive attitude and approach are very beneficial, especially in today’s day and age. When asked to describe his coaching style and approach, Jones emphasized his positive approach to conversations and coaching moments with players.
“I think that (being positive) is important now for today's players,” Jones said. “We know there's a lot of older coaches that are not very positive in their style, but that was the style back then. I think with these kids now you’ve got to bring a lot of positive energy and continue to encourage them to work hard, especially talking with the guys who don’t get the playing time.”
Jones spent a week around the Nuggets Summer League squad as he got adjusted to the team’s style, current assistant coaches on the staff, and became familiar with some of Denver’s younger players that were playing in Las Vegas.
“I was talking to Bol Bol, who hasn't cracked the rotation, and I just told him my experiences playing my 11 years and what it takes to earn a coach’s trust to be able to help the team win basketball games.”
Jones takes pride in being a teacher of the game, using his experience to help today’s players fit in the team context of the sport.
“My generation grew up playing on the playground,” Jones explained. “These kids, they don't really do that anymore. Here, these kids got to be taught to play the game. The fundamentals, spacing, how to share the ball, how to set screens, those things really interested me in coaching.”
Jones went on to explain the sense of pride he receives when a player takes something from practice and applies it in a real game. “You get this great feeling sense of pride that, you know that you actually taught them something.”
That approach to coaching can often lend Jones to become a father figure to younger players, a role the NBA veteran embraces.
“I found myself being a father figure to a lot of young kids,” Jones said. “A kid like Bol who's young and still trying to figure out find his way, I tell him that I remembered his father, played against his father and I knew his father, and how proud he was of him.”
Lunch with the Jokić family
The upcoming season won’t be the first time Jones has met or worked with the reigning MVP Nikola Jokić.
Back during the 2018 offseason, Jones was part of a group of coaches that went to Belgrade, Serbia for a Basketball Without Borders camp. The camp brought 63 of the top boys and girls ages 17 and under from 25 European countries to Serbia, and players such as Jokić, Nikola Vucevic, Gary Harris, and Bogdan Bogdanovic participated on the players’ side.
The camp took place across four days in August, but Jones took time to head over to Jokić’s hometown of Sombor, Serbia to spend time around the then-developing star and his family.
“After the camp, we went with his family, his dad, his brothers and had lunch,” Jones recalls. “It was the first time that I actually got to meet him and you know, just what a great kid. We got to work with the kids in his town and have him work the camp and show off different moves, so it was a really good time.”
Fast forward three years later and now Jones will have the opportunity to coach Jokić as he looks to build on his MVP season.
But before the grind of the 2021-22 season begins next month, Jones will make time for his family and of course, some golfing and hiking in Beaver Creek.