Brionna Jones set up shop in the post during Maryland’s rematch against No. 1 Connecticut. She was defended by Breanna Stewart, arguably the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time. Jones hauled in a pass from Chloe Pavlech. It was 1-on-1.
Spin move. Layup. Two points.
Jones finished the game with 24 points, tying her career high. Maryland couldn’t pull off the upset, but the No. 6 Terps gave the three-time (and eventual four-time) defending champions their toughest test all season.
In her three years in College Park, Jones has become a player that her teammates can always rely on to get a bucket. She has over 1,200 points and 800 rebounds in her career, averaging 15.2 and 9.8 as a junior. She’s been named to consecutive All-Big Ten first teams and started in two Final Fours.
Jones is also a pre-med major who plans to be a pediatrician. She graduated in three years with a kinesiology degree. She’s a two-time academic all-conference selection in addition to being a two-time all-conference honoree for basketball.
The Havre de Grace, Md. native is a “student-athlete” in the purest sense of the phrase. Living out that label involves tireless dedication to both sport and study. It takes a slew of 12-hour workdays with little respite. For seniors, it takes leadership and compassion toward their eventual successors.
It’s not easy being Brionna Jones, and the biggest decision of her life still awaits this spring.
Jones’ basketball career started in her family’s backyard. Early on, her most frequent foe was older brother Jarred (now a 6’6 guard for Loyola). After younger sister Stephanie and younger brother Jordan took to the sport, the family would play 3-on-3 pickup games with father Michael and mother Sanciarhea rounding out the squads. They played boys vs. girls a lot, although they did switch up the teams from time to time.
“It was definitely competitive,” Jones said. “No one [in the family] wants to lose.”
Brionna and Stephanie played together on a handful of teams—Steph would play a couple age levels up to join her sister. They started on a rec-league squad coached by their mom when Brionna was about 10 and Steph 7, and stayed together on travel teams for roughly five years. They separated when Brionna joined the Fairfax Stars, an AAU club based in northern Virginia, before her sophomore year in high school because the team received more widespread exposure. Steph joined the program too, but not at the same age level.
Jones wasn’t a super prospect, but she was far from an unknown. She was a four-star recruit (No. 55 overall in ESPN’s rankings) and the Baltimore Sun’s 2011-12 All-Metro Player of the Year as a junior. She led Aberdeen High School to a state championship her junior year, took the Stars to the Final Four in multiple national tournaments, and stood out at Nike skills camps. Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said Jones’ hands and scoring ability impressed her right away.
“When she would get a low-post catch, there was no ability to stop her on the offensive end,” Frese said.
Jones called Frese on the Fourth of July in the summer before her senior year to announce her commitment to Maryland. The home-state school impressed Jones from the start, she told The Baltimore Sun shortly after committing, but she took her time with the decision. Jones also received offers from South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and Georgetown.
In her senior year at Aberdeen, Jones reunited with Steph, then a freshman. The two only played half the season together, however, as Brionna tore her right ACL in January while going for a fast-break layup.
Jones was still recovering from the injury when she arrived at Maryland in 2013 as one of four blue-chip freshmen, joining five-star point guard Lexie Brown and four-star prospects Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and A’Lexus Harrison. To keep up with them, let alone with a team that featured veterans like Alyssa Thomas and Laurin Mincy, Jones had to dedicate herself to getting back on the floor.
“Before I got here, I was rehabbing with a clinic, and we were working hard,” Jones said. “But then I got here with Megan [Rogers, the team’s athletic trainer] and the rehab was a whole different level. It was definitely college-level, and I had never experienced that.”
Jones dropped 40 pounds during her recovery. Losing weight was a goal for her, as she knew she needed to be in better shape to run up and down the floor better. A revamped diet helped, too.
“She just took it upon herself. She went through rehab every day, extra workouts, extra cardio, just to not get behind,” said center Malina Howard, who was a year ahead of Jones. “And it really paid off. She really transformed her body.”
A slimmed-down Jones was back in time for the season opener against South Florida in November, some 10 months after the injury. She quickly became a weapon for the Terps off the bench, and she earned her first career start two months into the season at Syracuse.
“I remember a senior then, Alicia DeVaughn, I was talking to her, telling her I was so nervous, and she’s like ‘It’s just like any other game; it’s just, you’re starting now,’” Jones said. “And I was like, ‘It’s easy for you to say that! You’ve been starting!’”
The Terps beat Syracuse by 25 points that night. Jones finished with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and pulled down three rebounds.
She never relinquished her starting spot.
Jones’ medical aspirations weren’t triggered by any single person or event; she simply never wavered from her childhood dream job. “When I was younger, I really wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I really liked science and math, and I felt like that was one thing I could do.”
She also enjoyed working with children at basketball camps. Combine a love of medicine with a love of helping kids, and the result is pediatrics, a field Jones knew she wanted to enter well before college.
Frese’s support of players with rigorous academic schedules played a key role in Jones’ decision to come to Maryland. At many schools, top-level student-athletes are discouraged from such majors, but Frese is adamant that players with passions shouldn’t be deterred from them.
“That was a big deal to me, just going somewhere where the coach would allow me to do what I needed to do to accomplish my goals,” Jones said. “Coach B’s great at that.”
Two of Jones’ Maryland teammates have been pre-med majors as well: Howard and guard Kristen Confroy. The trio comprised three-fifths of the Terps’ lineup last year, and when they weren’t playing together, they were studying together in their shared apartment.
“Bri really enjoys studying with other people and doing group things. I really like working by myself,” Confroy said. “So I think it’s just about finding what works for you and however you can get through your day, get everything done.”
Howard switched to kinesiology—which was also Jones’ major—after her freshman year. As a result, they took most of the same classes. Howard being a year ahead usually meant she was giving Jones advice about a given class, but on the rare occasion they took the same course at the same time.
“We were in Physics I together, which is a little bit of fundamental but more theoretical-based physics, and there’s many different ways to get to the answer of a question and understand the concepts,” Howard said. “It would be so funny because we would both have the correct answer but the way we got there was completely different.
“Being able to have each other to bounce ideas off of and understand things in different ways, and to get it from a different perspective, was always super helpful.”
Last year’s season-ending Washington game kept Jones and Howard out of a Monday chemistry lab. It was their third absence; students are only allowed to miss three labs before failing the class. In a way, the season’s premature end had positive consequences for the two, although surely both would have preferred to advance further in the tournament and figure the academic situation out later.
Because basketball kept her in College Park, Jones constantly took classes during winter and summer sessions, which allowed her to complete her degree in three years. This seems to be a trend among Maryland players: Howard, Harrison and Chloe Pavlech have all done the same since 2015.
But because basketball kept her in College Park, Jones hasn’t been able to do any clinical work yet. Opportunities in the field are tough for college kids to come by, let alone student-athletes.
“We have time demands that we have to deal with for basketball, and then school on top of that,” she said. “So just trying to stay ahead of that, and then add more hours in doing [clinical work], it’s hard. If I had taken the opportunity sooner and gotten ahead of it, I could have done something over the summer, but some clinics, they want you to do it over the course of half a year, so it depends.”
In both school and basketball, Jones tries to stay level-headed. She’s found that getting too high or too low about a particular play or assignment hurts performance. Knowing that she can only control how hard she works and how much she prepares, she lets the rest take care of itself.
Now a senior, Jones has experienced the full spectrum of the sport. Maryland reached the Final Four in 2014 and 2015, then bowed out in the Round of 32 last season after the upset loss to Washington.
Through her trials and tribulations, the constant has been Jones’ deftness in the low post. Her textbook moves and sturdy frame make her a nightmare assignment for virtually any big.
“When I was younger, my parents were telling me things like how to use my body to get position,” she said. “I wasn’t always the fastest, wasn’t always the strongest, so finding those positions, how to move people, how to move your body to get to where I want to go.”
This physical style has served her well, even against players of Stewart’s caliber. Jones battled Stewart twice. At the 2015 Final Four, she and Maryland were blown out. The second time around, at the Garden in December, the Terps held their own, and Jones recorded a game-high 24 points on 12-of-14 shooting.
“She set the tone for our team not to be afraid. She was fearless,” Frese said. “Out of the gate, when she was diving on the floor and making plays for us, I thought she made a statement.”
The duo of Jones and Walker-Kimbrough kept the Terps in every game last season, and there’s reason to expect the same this year. They’re the only two remaining members of Frese’s 2013 recruiting class—Brown and Harrison have both transferred from the program.
Their games complement each other well, with Walker-Kimbrough patrolling the perimeter and Jones dominating down low. They’ve established a good rapport from sharing the court for over 100 games.
“Our main thing, for me, is the trust,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I know if my player gets by me, Bri’s gonna be there for my help side. I know if I miss a shot, Bri’s gonna get that offensive rebound for a putback. I know if I throw a pass at her foot, or 30 feet up in the air, she’s gonna get that pass.
“I don’t know how many guards can say that they have a post player that can catch half those passes, and I’m thankful for that. I’d probably have 500 more turnovers if it wasn’t for her.”
The Terps have landed six five-star prospects in the past two years, which means the cast is in place to both keep the ship afloat when Jones and Walker-Kimbrough leave and support them while they’re around. The 2016-17 team is poised to be Maryland’s most talented in nearly a decade, and the seniors are front and center.
Jones is eighth on Maryland’s all-time rebounds list. A healthy season of double-digit boards per game could launch her into the record books, unseating former teammate Alyssa Thomas for the top spot. She and Walker-Kimbrough hope to become the only Maryland players in history to reach three Final Fours.
Jones is pretty good at sneaking jokes past people. They’re usually humorous observations, often with a healthy dose of sarcasm. “It’s more on the low if you catch it,” she said. “It’s really funny, but if you’re not around to catch it, you’re missing out.”
Her comedy carries an extra element of surprise because she’s never been especially talkative. When she was being recruited by several coaches, she said the frequent calls and meetings took some time to get used to. On the court, she prefers leading by example over being much of a vocal presence.
“Bri’s always kind of our silent leader,” Frese said, “but when she does speak, players really pay attention.”
Maryland needs Jones to be more than just a “silent leader” this year, though. She and Walker-Kimbrough are the only two seniors on a team with six freshmen and seven new faces overall (transfer guard Ieshia Small redshirted last season).
“I think our first two, three years, we just tried to lead by example, but now that may not be enough, especially because we have so many new players,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “We have to help Coach teaching the new system, and I think that vocal leadership has really came out of us.”
Of course, Stephanie Jones is one of those six freshmen. Brionna’s younger sister was the No. 2 player in Maryland for the Class of 2016, a four-star forward prospect in her own right. Like Bri, Steph won titles at Aberdeen and earned recognition with the Stars. And like Bri, Steph tore her ACL in January of her senior season.
Thanks to Bri being on the team, Steph has been loosely familiar with the Maryland players and coaches for years. But the older sister tried to stay neither a reason for nor against Steph coming to the school.
“I didn’t really want to add that as a factor when thinking about where I was going,” Steph said. “Maryland, their coaching staff and everybody here, they showed a lot of interest and they were very persistent, and I really like the atmosphere here, just the way the coaches are and everything, their attitude. Bri being here is just an added perk.”
“I didn’t try to be that deciding factor,” Bri said. “I knew if she didn’t like it, she’d blame me.”
Steph was medically cleared in October but didn’t see the floor in either of Maryland’s exhibitions. Yet the anticipation for the sisters to share the floor again remains. This might be their last season as teammates.
“It’s a great opportunity. A lot of siblings don’t get to play together, especially at this level,” Bri said. “I’m just really excited going into this year, being able to see how she grows and see how she looks on the court.”
“I’m excited to be able to play with her and learn from her and her experiences here,” Steph said.
Jones is still taking prerequisite classes for med school, like Genetics, Biochemistry and Physics. She’s on track to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in May, after the spring semester.
That’s where things get murky. The WNBA Draft is in April, and the league’s season starts in mid-May. The only mock draft floating around the web has Jones going 11th overall. With 36 picks spread across three rounds, she’s almost a surefire draftee at this point.
As long as the schedule works, however, Jones still plans to take the MCAT. Results are valid for up to five years, although some schools will accept older scores than others (most don’t take anything more than three years old). If she needs to take the test again, she can.
The life of a WNBA player is far from glamorous. The league’s mean salary is just $72,000, and the rookie minimum is a shade above $35,000. Pediatricians, on the other hand, make an average of roughly $170,000, though entry-level positions in the field are obviously less than that.
But Jones isn’t in a hurry to leave basketball, the sport she’s played for nearly two decades. She’ll keep at it for as long as her body allows.
“If I change my mind,” she said, “I have a backup.”
With this plan in place, Jones is set to lead the Terps for one final go-round. She has the game to break school records, and the team has the talent to cut down nets. Her closest friends and biggest supporters—Howard, Walker-Kimbrough and Steph—are all with her in College Park.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.