September 16, 2022
From idol to rival: Comparing the careers of cousins DeLisha Milton-Jones and Haley Jones
The Next’s family rivalry series is back with a star-studded stack-up
In the late 1970s or early 1980s, a young DeLisha Milton began her basketball career on a dirt court in her cousin’s backyard. Soon, she was playing in local gyms against boys and a few soldiers from Fort Stewart, the army base less than 20 miles from her hometown of Riceboro, Georgia. “I would get my butt kicked left and right,” Milton, now known as DeLisha Milton-Jones, told the Coastal Courier in 2021.
Riceboro had barely 200 residents in 1980, and Milton grew up without running water. She was raised by a single mother, Beverly, who fled with her two children from her abusive husband when Milton was a toddler and subsequently struggled at times to afford food. Yet Milton grew into a standout athlete, playing softball, winning a state championship in the high jump and progressing in basketball from overmatched in the local gyms to one of the best players in the country.
A turning point in her basketball development came on a single play when Milton pinned an opponent’s layup attempt against the backboard. “The whole gym just stopped,” she said, adding that everyone clamored to pick her for their team from then on.
“… Those were the times that made DeLisha Milton-Jones.”
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Fast forward almost four decades, and Milton-Jones’ cousin, Haley Jones, is going through her own formative process as a 21-year-old Stanford senior. Jones is the daughter of two former basketball coaches, but she tried several sports growing up in Santa Cruz, California. She won a state title in gymnastics as a nine-year-old, but her height and shoe size soon outgrew the four-inch-wide balance beam. She transitioned to soccer and made the Junior Olympic Development team just a few years later as a center midfielder. In high school, she also dabbled in sprints, hurdles and triple jump.
On the basketball court, the now-6’1 Jones was a chameleon. She initially played point guard alongside older, taller players, then learned the post position in middle school while playing with her classmates. As a result, she developed an all-around game that made her the No. 1 recruit in the nation for the class of 2019. She won several national player of the year awards and set records for career points and field goal percentage at basketball powerhouse Archbishop Mitty High School.
“Haley is the most versatile player I’ve ever coached and arguably the best player,” Mitty head coach Sue Phillips, who has coached several U.S. youth national teams and has led Mitty for nearly 30 years, said in 2019.
Three years earlier, Jones’ AAU coach, Bobby Bramlett, had said the same, even nicknaming Jones “Starship Enterprises” because “she’s boldly going where no girl has gone before” with her positionless play.
Jones lived up to that nickname by becoming the first high school girls’ player to have her college announcement ceremony broadcast live by ESPN. She picked Stanford, partly because the coaches there would empower her to play multiple positions. “It makes the game so much more fun,” she told USA Today in 2021. “Who wants to be limited?”
Milton likewise won multiple national awards after averaging 21.0 points and 16.0 rebounds per game as a high school senior in 1993. She chose Florida, where she played two seasons with her older sister Charmaine, who transferred from Stetson ahead of Milton’s freshman year.
As a 6’1 forward with a 7’ wingspan, Milton made history as a freshman with Florida’s first-ever triple-double — 11 points, 11 rebounds and 10 steals — against Bethune-Cookman. By the end of her career, she was a first-team All-American and the winner of the Wade Trophy, given to the national player of the year. She also led Florida to an Elite Eight and ranked in the top three in program history in career scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks when she graduated in 1997.
Jones’ freshman season at Stanford didn’t go entirely as planned, as she suffered a season-ending knee injury in January 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic ended everyone’s season a few months later. But since then, she has been to two Final Fours in as many seasons, led Stanford to a national title as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 2021, and garnered comparisons to legends Cheryl Miller and Magic Johnson for her all-around game.
Between her freshman and sophomore seasons, Jones worked to become a better leader and a more decisive player. The games she missed became, as The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton put it in 2020, a “months-long, live-action film session.” She noticed passing angles she could exploit and learned each of her teammates’ tendencies in minute detail.
After her sophomore season in 2020-21, Jones improved her facilitating to help replace graduated point guard Kiana Williams. Jones was turnover-prone early in the 2021-22 season but also had a triple-double with points, rebounds and assists against Portland.
“She just has great vision,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said during the NCAA Tournament. “Sometimes, she really might see things that other people don’t even know are happening. She controls the game a lot because she can have the ball in her hands, and she’s a very unselfish player. But she also knows when to take her shots and assert herself.”
Jones has faced elite competition in college and internationally, and in 2023, she will likely play against the best in the WNBA. But if she had a time machine, there’s one matchup she would particularly relish.
“I would choose my cousin, DeLisha Milton-Jones. I want to play her in her prime,” Jones told Sports Illustrated’s The Spun in July. “First of all, it’s a family rivalry. I would be able to hold that win over her head, which is the plan.”
But that matchup, against an Olympian and WNBA champion, is a lot to ask of Jones before she even graduates college. So we’ll change the terms slightly and see which player gets bragging rights for her collegiate performance — and we’ll include Charmaine, too, in this family affair. The best performance in each statistical category is shaded in gray.
This is one of the closer family rivalries we’ve covered at The Next — in fact, through her first three seasons, DeLisha Milton played 2,365 minutes to Jones’ 2,362. But Milton takes top honors in nine statistical categories to Jones’ six and Charmaine’s one. She averaged a family-high 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game over her four seasons. She also shot 52.9% from the field on over 1,400 attempts (all but eight of them inside the arc).
“In undergrad at UF, I think there were moments when I just played the game and I played it hard. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just played,” Milton told WATE 6 in June. “Through playing hard and giving it my best effort, I would win awards and one trophy I won, in particular, was the Wade Trophy. … Little old me from Riceboro, Georgia, I won that award.”
It’s worth noting that Milton’s senior year is included in these statistics compared to Jones’ three seasons to date, but looking only at Milton’s first three years would not change the winner in most categories. And using Milton’s full college career reveals that Jones is within striking distance of many of Milton’s career marks with one season remaining.
Jones currently leads the family in minutes per game, free throw shooting percentage and assists per game, and she has the family’s only NCAA title.
“If you have Haley Jones on your team, you actually have three players, maybe three and a half, who knows,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said before the Huskies’ Final Four game against Stanford last season. “When you’re able to put somebody like that on the floor, you shoot the ball better. You handle the ball better as a team. You pass the ball better as a team. You rebound the ball better as a team, all because of one person.”
Jones also leads her family in 3-point shooting percentage, though it hasn’t been a major part of her game. She has made 20 of 73 attempts (27.4%) over three seasons, but she told Just Women’s Sports in July that she has worked on her perimeter shooting this offseason. Improving in that area could help her be even more productive offensively, especially in the WNBA.
Jones has also kept working on her all-around game with an eye toward filling multiple roles in the WNBA. She plans to play the guard position “90 percent of the time” for Stanford this season, and she ran the offense full-time in the offseason while mentoring two freshmen point guards. She also has lofty goals for herself and her team.
“I want to win another national championship, I want to be Pac-12 Player of the Year again, I want to be the [Most Outstanding Player] of the Final Four again,” she told The Spun. “Those are goals I have every year. I want to go undefeated in the preseason and undefeated in the regular season. There’s a lot left out there.”
Em Adler, a college basketball and WNBA Draft expert for The Next, currently projects Jones as the No. 2 prospect in the 2023 draft. “Haley Jones is a really intriguing set of skills all wrapped together,” Adler said. “She’s got clear strengths and weaknesses that currently make her a no-doubt All-American but a bit of a project as a prospect.”
Adler highlighted Jones’ rebounding and defensive versatility while expressing concerns about how her offense will translate at the WNBA level. Adler projected that if Jones continues to develop defensively, her career could resemble that of Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, a three-time All-Defensive Team selection. Or, if Jones’ jump shot improves, her career could resemble that of Olympian Napheesa Collier.
When Jones enters the professional ranks, she’ll have someone who’s seen it all to help her adjust. After Milton graduated from Florida in 1997, she had the choice between two fledgling U.S. professional leagues, the WNBA and the American Basketball League (ABL). She chose the ABL because it paid more, the season was longer and it played in the winter rather than the summer. The Portland Power drafted Milton second overall, but the ABL folded in December 1998, partway through her second season.
In 1999, the Los Angeles Sparks selected Milton fourth overall in the WNBA Draft, making her a rare player to be drafted in the top five twice. She became “the Robin” to Lisa Leslie’s Batman, winning WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. (She got married soon after those titles, so the rest of this article will use her married name, DeLisha Milton-Jones.)
Over her 17 WNBA seasons, Milton-Jones played 499 regular-season games and averaged 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals in 28.8 minutes per game. She expanded her offensive skillset as a pro, shooting 32.5% from 3-point range after making zero 3-pointers at Florida. Milton-Jones earned All-Star nods in 2000 and 2007 and still ranks among the top 20 players all-time in games played, total minutes, total points, made field goals, total rebounds, total steals, total blocks and defensive win shares.
“I found my niche by being able to be someone who’s an iron woman, who had longevity in this game,” Milton-Jones told Knox News in June. “There’s such an honor in knowing that I have stood the test of time; I was here from almost from the [WNBA’s] inception … [and] my name is in the history books.”
Milton-Jones also won Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2008 and played in countries including the Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Spain, South Korea and Turkey during the WNBA offseason. She earned the nickname “D-Nasty” for her physicality and work ethic on the court, contrasting with her off-court nickname of “Sunshine.”
“I think she’s such an amazing player and she somewhat goes under the radar,” Jones said of her cousin. “She played the game with such passion and she has inspired me.”
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Meanwhile, Charmaine — now Charmaine Gatlin — didn’t play organized basketball after college, but she likewise rose to the top of her profession. Early in her career, she held operations roles with the Orange Bowl Committee and the NFL Pro Bowl, and she later spent eight years as a senior vice president at the nonprofit 100 Black Men of America. She is currently the co-president and chief operating officer of the Jackson Health Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising organization affiliated with one of the nation’s largest healthcare providers.
Shortly after Gatlin joined Jackson Health, Milton-Jones played her final WNBA season in 2015, improbably returning from an Achilles tear she suffered at age 40 in 2014. She hoped to play in 2016, too, but the Atlanta Dream cut her in training camp and no other team signed her. She announced her retirement that fall to become an assistant coach at Pepperdine.
After one season, Milton-Jones was promoted to Pepperdine’s head coach and led the Waves to their first-ever postseason appearance. In 2019, she left to become an assistant coach at Syracuse — where she often guarded the post players in practice at age 45 — before becoming the head coach at Old Dominion in 2020.
Her rise has been meteoric, with just two seasons spent as an assistant coach and three as a head coach, but Milton-Jones said the transition from playing was sometimes difficult.
“The aggressiveness and the emotions that I played with, you can’t necessarily coach with that,” she said in 2021. “You have to learn how to explain yourself rather than express yourself.”
In late 2021 or early 2022, former coach and current television analyst Carolyn Peck called Milton-Jones to tell her that she would be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Milton-Jones couldn’t explain anything then; she just cried. “I was speechless,” she said.
She found the words to explain what the honor meant to her during her induction ceremony in June 2022. Despite all her success, she believed her career had often been overlooked — but not by the Hall of Fame.
“You will never know how healing it is to stand on this stage to receive this honor,” she said, addressing the voting committee. “… Thank you for recognizing my contributions and saying my name.”
Now, Milton-Jones is a Hall of Famer, an Olympian, a WNBA champion and the best collegiate player in her family. Most of those accolades are hers forever. But over the next seven months, Jones will try to seize the last one for her own growing trophy case.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.