March 9, 2024 

Why you can’t blink if you’re trying to stop Brown’s Kyla Jones

Behind Jones’ drives and crafty finishes, Brown has had its best season in recent memory

In timeouts, Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc will often draw up plays to get senior guard Kyla Jones driving with her dominant left hand. It’s worked well for several seasons because of Jones’ quickness and finishing ability. But this year, there’s been a new wrinkle: Sometimes, Jones will ask LeBlanc to run the play the other way, so she’s using her non-dominant hand.

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Jones now drives left on 51% of her drives and right on 48%, according to data from Synergy Sports. That’s a much more even split than in her previous two seasons, when she went right 33% of the time. And she’s made 11 of 23 shots off those righty drives, a much higher percentage than in the past.

Being so comfortable going either direction is just one example of how Jones has improved her game as a Bear, especially this season. All told, those improvements have taken her from a lightly recruited high school prospect to an Ivy League Player of the Year candidate. And they’ve helped her lead Brown to a 15-11 record, good for its best winning percentage since the 2005-06 season.

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Coming out of high school in Chicago, the 5’9 Jones had a few college offers, but she opted to spend a postgraduate year at Worchester Academy in Massachusetts and apply to Brown. The Ivy League then canceled her freshman season in 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a sophomore, she started 18 of 23 games and averaged 13.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.3 assists per game.* She was one of Brown’s go-to offensive weapons right away, as she had the ball in her hands to end 30.9% of the Bears’ possessions when she was on the court.

The following year, Jones’ scoring increased to 16.4 points per game, and she improved her field-goal percentage by nine percentage points, to 48.7%. And this season, she’s at 16.8 points per game, while increasing her assists to 2.9 per game and taking more 3-pointers to complement her nearly unstoppable drives to the rim.

“The more I’ve progressed through the Ivy League [in my career], the more I’ve realized that I could be a great player,” Jones told The Next. “… And just knowing that I’m a great player and that these are the type of things I can do has really helped me just be more confident.”

At this point, the entire league knows that Jones wants to get near the rim: In each of her three seasons, she has taken at least 82% of her shot attempts at the rim or in the paint. But she’s still found success, in part because of her elite change of speed.

“The unique thing about Kyla is she can literally go from lock-knee standing to like, I’m by you, in a step,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters on Feb. 8. “Her ability to change speeds is that good. … You just see it happen game after game after game.”

Griffith contrasted that with players who change speeds on the move, using crossovers or hesitation, and said that Jones’ ability to do it from a standstill makes it harder to see coming.

Brown guard Kyla Jones drives the ball with her right hand from outside the 3-point arc.
Brown guard Kyla Jones (2) drives with her right hand during a game against Columbia at the Pizzitola Sports Center in Providence, R.I., on March 1, 2024. (Photo credit: Brown Athletics)

Last season, defenders could at least attempt to force Jones to her right hand and hope for the best. But she worked on that in the offseason, and defenders now often have to play her straight up. She has also added a few more post-ups to her steady diet of pick-and-roll actions and transition baskets, and she’s been extremely efficient, ranking in the 98th percentile nationally in points per play on post-ups.

“[I’m] just trying to give people different looks,” Jones said. “I’m doing the same thing, but I’m trying to go about it in different ways so that it’s a little less predictable. … I think going right is something that a lot of people aren’t necessarily expecting, which has allowed me to have some success.”

That success has included scoring 34 points against Monmouth on Nov. 26, in a game that LeBlanc said she had to do relatively little to open up her star. She drew up simple plays, like clearing out space and getting Jones the ball at the elbow, and Jones took it from there, sometimes finishing over much longer defenders.

In Ivy League play, Jones scored 22 points against Harvard, 27 and 30 in two games against Columbia, and 22 against Penn, among other highlights.

“She’s a driving machine and she’s a force off the dribble,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore told The Next after Jones’ 22-point outing on Jan. 15. “I felt like we did a really good job of kind of executing the game plan there to kind of get in gaps, and she … still gets by people.”

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In the first game against Columbia, Jones wasn’t being double-teamed when she got to the rim, so she took advantage. “If it’s working, I’m gonna keep doing it until it stops working,” she said.

It didn’t stop working in the rematch, either. Across both games, Jones shot 65% from the field, including 82% at the rim, and scored over 40% of her team’s points. Add in her seven assists, and she helped create more than half of her team’s points.

“I probably have never seen someone who can get so in the zone but so calm while she’s doing it,” Brown senior guard Charlotte Jewell told The Next, speaking broadly about Jones’ hot streaks. “… Being on the court with her when she is in one of those modes, it’s absolutely insane.”

Against Penn, Jones opened the game by scoring her 1,000th career point and closed it with the game-winning layup. On that final possession, with the game tied at 59, she caught the ball near halfcourt. Then she drove on 6’1 Penn forward Jordan Obi, spun to her left and finished over Obi and 6’4 forward Floor Toonders.

“That’s part of what makes her special. She has that ability to reach out and kind of shoot it a little further away from her body,” LeBlanc told The Next. “… There’s times in games where you just need to count on your players to be able to make big shots … [and] that was Kyla doing that for us.”

It’s hard to fault Ivy opponents for struggling to stop Jones, though, because even in practice, the players who know her best have their hands full. “Whoever’s team Kyla’s on has it pretty good,” Jewell said.

Jones was a cheat code when the team practiced its press break recently, and at another practice, she was unstoppable in a scrimmage that was first to nine points. The Brown players often good-naturedly talk trash with each other, Jewell said, but Jones scored all nine of her team’s points and “just walked away, completely silent,” from her antagonist.

“She’s definitely, I would say, one of the hardest to guard, 100%,” Jewell said, “and … one of the best players I’ve ever played with. I would say probably top two, and I don’t even know the other person. I’m just giving myself room. … There maybe isn’t a two.”

Brown guard Kyla Jones dribbles the ball with her left hand from near the top of the key. A teammate sets a backscreen on Jones' defender.
Brown guard Kyla Jones (2) handles the ball during a game against Dartmouth at the Pizzitola Sports Center in Providence, R.I., on Jan. 27, 2024. (Photo credit: Emma Marion)

Beyond her ability to get to the rim, Jones has worked to make her 3-point shot more of a weapon. She has struggled from distance in her career, but LeBlanc has seen her as a shooter since her sophomore year, and Jones is gradually getting more confident in it. Her 2.3 attempts per game this season are a significant increase from the 1.5 per game she took in her first two seasons.

Though Jones is making just 29.3% of her threes this season, LeBlanc points to how she makes them in big moments. For example, she hit the Bears’ only 3-pointer in the one-point win over Monmouth, and she nailed one to give Brown the lead in the third quarter of a close loss at Harvard in late February.

Jones has also been more of a distributor this season, even as her scoring has increased. She’s learned how to pass out of double teams, including throwing some “ridiculous” cross-court passes out of post-ups.

“That’s definitely been an area of growth that maybe doesn’t always show up in the stats but is really important to our team,” LeBlanc said, “… going from scorer to scorer and facilitator.”

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When Jones came to Brown, she knew the program would be rebuilding, she said. Now, she can say she helped make it a factor in the Ivy League again.

The Bears won just six games in her sophomore year, then 11 last season and 15 this year. Two years after winning just one of 14 conference games, the Bears are 6-7 in the league with one game left. They have already secured the program’s first winning season since 2017-18, and a win in their final game would tie them for the program’s best conference record since 2005-06.

“Brown has a bunch of hungry players that have been in that system, and they’ve gritted out some wins,” Griffith said on Feb. 1. “… And I think that is the mark of a team that’s figuring it out. So I’m not really surprised. … We saw them starting to have that winning mindset and attitude last year.”

Statistically, the Bears improved across the board last season, but the rebuild was still underway. This year felt different from the start, Jones and Jewell said. The coaching staff talked with the players in preseason about making the Ivy Tournament, and that gave the players confidence and a clear goal.

“That definitely changed how we went about things,” Jones said. “… We were all like, wow, we can actually be really good this year. Our coaches believe in us. We think we’ve gotten better. … So having those conversations early, I think, just really got us in the right mindset.”

“It’s felt like almost a 180 … from the last few years,” Jewell added.

The Brown women's basketball team stands in a circle on the large "B" logo in the middle of its home court.
Brown women’s basketball stands in a circle during a preseason practice at the Pizzitola Sports Center in Providence, R.I., in fall 2023. (Photo credit: Brown Athletics)

The Bears were in contention to make the four-team Ivy League Tournament until March 2, when Penn pulled off an upset to knock them out. They have become a team that even the best Ivy League opponents struggle against and worry about.

They’re deeper offensively this season, with more scorers who can help space the floor for Jones to drive and take pressure off her to produce. They have multiple ball-handlers, and they cut hard and often.

“I bet if you tracked their movement data versus everybody else, just on offense, they’d probably move the most in the league,” Griffith said.

Defensively, the Bears played a 2-3 zone about 90% of the time in Jones’ sophomore and junior seasons, but this season, they’ve changed nearly wholesale to man-to-man, employing it 98% of the time. They did it largely to improve their rebounding, but it’s also made it harder for opponents to score and forced more turnovers. Some of their defensive statistics, including points allowed per 100 possessions, are the best the program has produced in at least seven seasons.

The result of all that growth is that even losses have felt different than in previous years.

“Every game we’ve had with Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, even Penn, I feel like at some point in that game, we were right there,” Jones said. “… It’s really shown us that we can compete with these teams, and I think [losses] always hurt a little more when they’re super close.”

After losing to Harvard in January, for example, LeBlanc said there was palpable frustration from her team. “This was the year that we actually felt like we could compete,” she said. Brown was within six points at halftime, but Harvard pulled away to win by 14.

Still, LeBlanc saw progress: Instead of struggling with turnovers, as they had last season against Harvard, the Bears had the “next-level struggle” of trying to get themselves easier shots. It was a step forward in that series, even if it didn’t feel like it.

And when the Bears win now — as has happened more and more — it’s felt extra special because of the stakes involved.

After her buzzer-beater against Penn, Jones said, “We were so happy. We were jumping around. We were singing, we were dancing. So it sunk in very quickly because … we had been talking about the importance of that game pretty much leading all the way up to it.”

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As Jones prepares to leave Brown and play a final season as a graduate transfer, part of her legacy will be that joy that she helped rekindle within the program. Another huge part will be her ability to take and make big shots, which made her a rare 1,000-point scorer in just three seasons.

Sometimes, Jones’ shots look effortless as she gets past an opponent in a blink; other times, they look like sheer willpower as she muscles a shot over a bigger player. But however she does it, she so often gets what she wants, even as everyone knows she wants it.

“She’s probably the best player I’ve ever coached at getting to the rim and just finding a way against all types of matchups and all types of defenses,” LeBlanc said. “She just finds a way to get there.”

* These statistics and advanced team statistics, from Her Hoop Stats, include only games against Division I opponents. Brown has played three games against other opponents in Jones’ career, but Jones has only appeared in one, during her sophomore season. Team records are from Brown’s record book and include games against all opponents.

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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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