In high school, he was running with a bad crowd, a dangerous crowd. He had no direction. He was troubled. Times were tough back then, and there was little by way of support.
But he had basketball.
After moving from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Gautier, his life revolved around doing things the wrong way. A high school teacher predicted he would end up either dead or in prison, and his friends were a major reason why.
But he had basketball.
Basketball was a way out. A way out of his old neighborhood. An exit from his trusted circle. Jones was talented enough. But he had to gain perspective. He had to focus. He had to dedicate himself.
More than anything, he had to distance himself from his childhood friends.
“I had to clean up my surroundings,” Jones said. “I was running with the wrong crowd. They were doing negative things, and it was affecting me and my family. I had to clean them up. I had to let them go.”
He made the change around the start of his junior year. Then he approached his high school basketball coach at Gautier, Keith McQueen, who had kicked him off the team. McQueen believed in him. Jones said McQueen deserves a lot of credit for helping Jones get his life in order.
“You gotta go through rough times to go through good times,” he said. “I grew up with them boys. I knew they were doing bad things. It was real hard. It was me becoming a man.”
Jones made a commitment to the gym. He had to. There was no looking back, no regrets, no thinking back to the old days, when his future was narrowed down to a casket or cinder block walls. This was his opportunity, perhaps his last opportunity.
There weren’t immediate returns for his hard work. Jones was tall and lanky, with room to grow. He had raw potential, untapped potential, but colleges weren’t calling. Well, at least not yet.
But college wasn’t even an option before. “I was going to quit basketball and try something else. Like, work eight hours (a day) or something like that,” he said. So he kept working. And working. And working.
His junior year, he held no scholarship offers. A junior college had shown interest in signing him. He stayed in the gym. No pouting. No running back to his old neighborhood; to those friends who had steered him wrong.
“I was just a gym rat. I just stayed in the gym,” he said. “I started going to All-American camps in Louisiana. I felt like if I was with the big names, I could play up there with them. I had a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I should have been playing at the big time after that.”
Jones surfaced in the summer of 2010. He participated in the Deep South All-American Camp, hosted by Jamie Palmer, in Baton Rouge, La. Prospects from across the South participated, all in an attempt to spike recruiting interest.
Jones made a strong impression as arguably the camp’s best prospect of 105 players.
“(UTEP head coach) Tim Floyd was just all over him,” McQueen said. “Loved him. Without question, he thought he was one of the top three or four players in Mississippi. He came and saw A.J. four or five times, and said he had unlimited potential.”
Ole Miss approached Jones. Head coach Andy Kennedy liked what he saw in Jones. He saw the talent. He saw the hard work. He saw a mature player, a dedicated player. Kennedy offered Jones a scholarship. Jones eventually accepted.
“I love the kid. He’s going to be a tremendous player,” Kennedy said. “He’s got a great attitude, he works really hard and he’s got the athleticism and the drive to be a very good SEC player. The kid’s a hard worker. Day in and day out, good attitude. All those things are going to lead to him being successful.”
Jones sat in a chair in the entry hall of Ole Miss’ sparkling basketball practice facility in mid-January. He looked around, at the pictures of Chris Warren and Terrico White on the walls, at the Ole Miss logo, at the sun shining through the window atop the roof of the building.
He smiled as he talked about his past. His past shaped him, as did the birth of his son. “When I first had my child, when I seen him walk, I pinched myself. I was like, man, this has to be real,” he said.
Here he was, a kid from nowhere, living out his dream of playing collegiate basketball. Of getting out of his neighborhood. Of becoming a man. Of making something of himself.
“I think about my past all the time. Sometimes I cry about, ‘cause it has a big impact on me now,” Jones said. “I don’t want to go back there to my old neighborhood that I grew up in or see the old people I used to hang with. It’s crazy how it affects me now.”
He talks about where he was and where he is now with his teammates, especially his fellow freshmen. He’s built another inner-circle, leaning on Jarvis Summers, Ladarius White and Maurice Aniefiok -- players from not-so-different backgrounds.
“Me, Jarvis, Snoop (White), Maurice, we just sit around and think, man, is this real? Are we really here? I’m here. I made it,” he said. “Growing up, you couldn’t tell me I was going to grow up and come to Ole Miss to play basketball.”
But he is. And it’s because he made a choice. The right choice.