Too often for Gahanna Lincoln coach Tony Staib, conversations centered on Sean Jones between him and college coaches have the same rhythm.
They’ll tell Staib how much they like Jones as a point guard. They go over all of Jones’ positives, referencing his quickness, ability to create space, score and dish. Staib will let them know how highly he thinks of Jones’ coachability, unselfishness and knack for making the right play at the right time. Yet as certain coaches talk, Staib can hear a certain word coming. It’s the same word he’d strongly prefer not to hear in this familiar sequence but seemingly won’t stop coming out of their mouths.
“You know what's coming,” Staib told Eleven Warriors. “It's his height.”
Some coaches tell him they don’t mind that Jones, a 2022 prospect, is listed at 5-foot-10. They take the “if the kid can play, he can play” tact. Others see his height as a concern at the college level, which they’ve told Staib.
“It's starting to get very old as his high school coach answering that question,” Staib said. “Because here's the deal, college coaches will say that to me because I'm his coach. They won't say it to him. I get that question a lot. It's getting old. It's sort of like, just watch the tape. Watch the tape.”
Apparently, college coaches have heeded those words. While Ohio State hasn’t extended a scholarship offer yet to Jones, a dozen others have.
Jeff Boals at Ohio University pulled the trigger first, dishing an offer in March of 2019. Toledo, Kent State, Grambling State and Cleveland State followed with offers over the course of the next year. This April, interest in Jones skyrocketed. He added offers from Mississippi State, Houston, SMU, Wichita State, Xavier, VCU and Duquesne.
“It really just took one,” Jones told Eleven Warriors. “It just took one big offer and other people noticed, to be honest. That's what I think.”
That “one big offer” came from VCU. Staib sent game film of Jones to Rams coach Mike Rhoades, who had helped Shaka Smart land Rob Brandenberg out of Gahanna Lincoln a decade ago. Rhoades called him back to ask, “Tony, am I crazy not to offer this kid?” Shortly thereafter, on April 1, Jones learned of the news.
Most of Jones’ offers originated in a similar fashion. Coaches, unable to travel to recruit in person, have been catching up on high school tape from the 2019-20 season. They’ve had a chance to see Jones average 18.2 points per game as a sophomore on a team that achieved a 24-2 record. Because the pandemic has kept college coaches at home, Staib said he has sent more film to college coaches than ever before in his coaching career, which played a significant role in April’s flurry of offers.
“I think college coaches are seeing right now that even with his size that they may have some reservations, the more they watch the film tells you that that's not an issue with him,” Staib said. “He can do things on the court that any 6-2 guard can do.”
One of the teams with a decision to make at some point? Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes. Jones could turn out to be Ohio State’s answer at point guard in the 2022 cycle, though he doesn’t hold a scholarship offer from his home state power yet.
Jones’ relationship with the Buckeyes' current coaching staff spans all the way to middle school, when he became the rare eighth-grader to take a recruiting visit. At the time, it was a totally foreign experience. Neither he nor Joshua Whiteside, a fellow 2022 prospect with whom he attended the game, understood how the recruiting process works. He deemed it “just a fun experience.”
“I just know that they work hard because I usually sit right behind the bench. They play hard, they coach hard. They put a lot into their games, the game plan behind it. I just know they really want to win.”– Sean Jones on Ohio State
A couple of years removed from the eighth-grade visit to see Ohio State top Rutgers on Feb. 20, 2018, Jones’ recruitment has become quite a bit more business-like. He remains in regular contact with the Buckeyes’ coaches.
“I think Ohio State's interest of Sean is growing every single day,” Staib said. “I think as time goes on, things will escalate even higher. I've had numerous conversations with their coaches. They are very interested. They're doing a good job starting to form a solid relationship with Sean as time goes on. Their interest is growing daily, there's no doubt about that.”
Jones said he has the closest relationship with assistant coach Ryan Pedon. He said the Buckeyes coaches are “really genuine,” calling them “good people” who “can be funny at times.”
As a freshman at Gahanna Lincoln, Jones took one visit to Ohio State, and he visited three more times last season as a sophomore. His five visits are more than he’s made to any other school.
“I just know that they work hard because I usually sit right behind the bench,” Jones said about his impressions of Ohio State. “They play hard, they coach hard. They put a lot into their games, the game plan behind it. I just know they really want to win.”
In any normal, coronavirus-free year, the next step for Jones would have been to take a visit to Ohio State. Not at a basketball game with a bunch of other recruits, just him and his family visiting campus and meeting with Holtmann and his staff. The type of visit that could possibly lead to an offer.
Jones had one set, but as he puts it, the pandemic “kind of messed me up.”
All in-person recruiting visits have been called off until at least July 31 by the NCAA. Jones also missed out on a chance to impress college coaches this summer on the Nike EYBL circuit with what Staib described as an advanced skill level and improved jump shot.
“I can't even talk about it,” Jones said. “I've had a good, what do I call it, COVID-19 time. I've still received a lot of offers. But I feel like if I had AAU, I would have had way more stuff going on for me. Ranked, all that.”
He’s not alone in that feeling. It would’ve been beneficial for Ohio State, too, to host Jones on a visit and see him compete this spring and summer against the nation’s best talent.
Jones is one of a few lead guards in the 2022 cycle who have the Buckeyes’ attention. So far, only five-star Skyy Clark holds an offer. Jones and Cincinnati Woodward’s Paul McMillan each have Ohio State’s attention as in-state point guards, though neither have offers yet.
If Jones ends up with an Ohio State offer, which appears increasingly likely, he’d have to make a decision of whether or not to play for his home state’s flagship program, located a 15-minute drive from his high school. That, Jones said, wouldn’t be as important as a college program’s style of play, player development and energy around the team.
“Hometown hero and all that stuff, but I'm really just looking to go somewhere that really feels good for me,” Jones said.
Jones grew up watching Trey Burke, who left Ohio's capital for Michigan, and he attends the same high school that produced former Michigan State big man Nick Ward. Players sometimes leave Columbus. It happens.
But for some in the state, it matters for Ohio State to keep Ohio's best prospects at home. Holtmann, who said his coaching staff planned to “work extremely hard to close our borders and dominate the state of Ohio in recruiting” during his 2017 introductory press conference as the Buckeyes head coach, fully understands that.
“I think it's a big deal, I do,” Staib said. “You get a hometown guy to go to Ohio State and play there and succeed there, it really fosters up, I think, a lot of positive energy for the whole city. You take a look at Sullinger for Ohio State. Everybody wants to root for their hometown guy, and Sean, of course everybody's cheering for him, but even people around central Ohio that have played against him or watched him play, they want to see him go to Ohio State and succeed.”
It's still exceedingly early in Jones' recruitment. He has 18 months before he can even sign a National Letter of Intent. But if an offer from Ohio State eventually comes his way, he'd have to decide whether he wants to be the “hometown hero” he referenced.
For now, Jones waits.