It is almost incredible that Zanai Jones’ brilliant high school basketball career is just about over.
It seems like only yesterday that the sensational do-everything guard first stepped onto the floor at Hudson Catholic High School and now she’s poised to take the next step in her hoop dream life toward college life and a spot on the Villanova University women’s basketball roster in the fall.
“I know it all happened so fast,” Jones said. “It will all probably settle in when it’s over.”
So Jones wanted to make the most of her last season with the Hawks and leave her indelible mark at the school located on McGinley Square.
“I wanted to make the most of my last year,” Jones said. “I always play with the same intensity and same drive, but I knew that there were some things I needed to improve on before I got to college. I had to get my shot off quicker and make better decisions with the ball. I wanted to do everything right.”
Yeah, like Jones did anything wrong over the prior three seasons? After all, Jones was the Hudson County Player of the Year last year as a junior, leading the Hawks to the Hudson County Tournament championship game, filling up every single category on the statistic sheet known to man.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Jones said. “I just knew that I was going to make the most of every single game and leave my teammates with something to remember me by. I was going to try to get everyone involved. I was focused on being well rounded as a player. I felt like I wanted to be a better defender. I tried to work on my pull-up jump shot. I wanted to get all of my teammates involved in the game.”
Hudson Catholic head coach Pete Vincent knew that there wasn’t much that Jones had to improve upon.
“Last year, I think we needed her to take on a bigger scoring role,” Vincent said. “This year, she’s doing a little bit more of everything. There’s no limit to what she can do. She values everything about the game and respects every aspect to the game. She’s taken a little more pride in defending. I don’t think we need to stress her out worrying about guarding the opponent’s best player. But she’s guarding the better players now so she’s ready to play in the Big East [Conference, where Villanova plays] next year.”
Jones doesn’t appear to be the most vocal player in the world.
“She wants to motivate the others as much as she can,” Vincent said. “She wants to instill things on the others. She wants to leave the others with a lasting impression.”
Jones has certainly been making sure no one soon forgets her and her talents. She has been filling up the stat sheet every night this season, in fashion that not a lot of local high school basketball fans have seen in ages.
Jones has reeled off six straight games of 16 points or better, but in that span, there are games with eight or more rebounds, six or more assists and six or more steals.
Last week, Jones had 25 points in a win over Snyder, had 24 points, eight rebounds, eight steals and six assists in a win over Memorial, had 19 points, eight assists and six steals in a win over Ferris and had 15 points, five rebounds, eight assists and four steals in a win over St. Dominic Academy.
During that span, Jones learned that she had been officially nominated for the annual McDonald’s All-America Classic, putting her in a class with the top 100 players in the nation. While the game will not be played this year because of the pandemic, it is still a major achievement just to be considered for participation in the game.
For her efforts, Jones has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Jones was extremely proud to receive consideration for the McDonald’s All-America game.
“Being a nominee made me feel like I made the team,” Jones said. “I feel like a McDonald’s All-American. I’m proud of myself. It’s a major achievement. I’m not going to downplay that. I’ve always had high expectations of myself. Once I’ve now accomplished it, it’s time to move on to the next goal.”
Vincent knows that Jones has been a leader from the outset of her career.
“No one doubts that she has that championship mindset, even though there’s no trophy to play for,” Vincent said. “I think leadership is something I saw in Zanai from the beginning of her time here. I think she needs to open up a little bit and I think that’s only going to help her on the collegiate level.”
When one looks at Jones on the floor, it appears as if she’s not having a good time playing. She’s rarely smiling or laughing. It’s the same deadpan expressionless approach, game in and game out.
“She takes the game very seriously,” Vincent said. “She wants to play well and wants her teammates to play well. She’s the kind of kid who laughs after the game.”
“I think that always has been part of my personality,” Jones said. “I don’t speak much. I think I’m a better leader in practice. It’s been very unfortunate that we’re not getting a chance to play for a championship. But I still want everyone to play well.”
The idea that there wasn’t a championship to play for this season really hit Jones hard.
“It was hard to take the news that there were no county playoffs this year,” Jones said. “Especially after what happened last year [the Hawks lost to Bayonne in the county tournament title game]. But there was nothing we can do about it. There was no time to look back. We had to make the most of it and move forward. I took it hard one day, then let it go. I was going to play hard every game and go from there.”
Jones takes everything in her life seriously. She has maintained a 3.5 grade point average during her days at Hudson Catholic and is a member of the National Honor Society. She will also graduate high school with almost 50 college credits to her resume and will more than likely have her Master’s in business administration by the time she is done at Villanova.
Jones plans on majoring in marketing at Villanova and would like to stay in the sports world with her career after her playing days are through. She also might want to become a coach on some level.
For now, it’s just about ending her high school days with a bang. Jones will get the chance to go hard for Hudson a few more times, as incredible as that may seem. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com