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New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones represents the Bahamas in the WNBA Finals

In pursuit of her first league championship, the 2021 MVP has the support of an entire country

LAS VEGAS –– On a Saturday afternoon at the Las Vegas Aces’ practice facility in Henderson, Nevada, on the eve of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones fields questions from the national media.

Jones is asked about the tall task of defending the top-seeded Aces, being a dominant presence for the Liberty and the pressure that comes with playing in a Finals. Jones answers the questions with acute focus. She’s not new to the championship stage — it’s her third Finals appearance in the last five seasons. But Jones is surely locked-in, and her postseason performance has shown as much.

What softens that focus, even for a moment, is a question about her native Bahamas – what food she can look forward to from her dad, who attended Game 1, whenever she needs a taste of home. As Jones rattled off dishes – steamed chicken, peas and rice, coleslaw, mac and cheese – her Bahamian accent grew stronger.

“Got to say it with a Bahamian accent,” Jones said, laughing.

Beneath the impressive pro basketball career that Jones has built for herself in the WNBA and United States is her Bahamian foundation that has fortified her from the moment she left Grand Bahama at the age of 14 to pursue a path that has now taken her to the game’s highest level.

As Jones competes in the Finals on a quest to win her first championship, she does so with the support of an entire country behind her. They’ve filled the country’s sports lounges and bars, and hosted watch parties to cheer on the homegrown star who has shifted the perception of women’s basketball on the islands.

“You name it, everybody is going to be watching,” said Jay Philippe, a native of Grand Bahama and a friend of Jones’. “When anyone thinks of women’s basketball, the first thing they’ll say is Jonquel Jones. Jonquel alone has brought the awareness of women’s basketball, the WNBA in particular, to the Bahamas.”

From left to right: Nuvolari Chotoosingh, general manager of the Grand Bahama Ministry of Tourism, New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones, basketball coach Gladstone “Moon” McPhee and sportscaster Jay Philippe greet Jones at the Grand Bahama International Airport in 2016.

Jay Philippe

Two decades ago, Gladstone McPhee could see the makings of a future star.

McPhee, more commonly known by his nickname “Moon,” is considered a coaching legend in the Bahamas, having instructed and developed generations of hoopers on Grand Bahama.

There was one kid who caught and kept McPhee’s attention. She was an elementary school-age girl from the rural town of Holmes Rock whose skill potential was paired with a poignant desire, a want-to, that distinguished her from her peers.

McPhee called his daughter Yolett, who at the time was playing college basketball in the United States.

“I remember my dad saying, I have this girl down here, Jonquel, she’s growing. I think she could be a star,” said Yolett McPhee-McCuin, now coach of the Ole Miss Rebels women’s basketball team.

McPhee-McCuin, however, wasn’t initially convinced. After all, every time her father had seen a player with demonstrated skill, he thought he had a star. But the way her father spoke about Jones was impassioned.

“He felt like she had a chance to do some special things. He felt like with some work she would continue to get better.”

Jones proved McPhee right. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft has since propelled herself into WNBA superstardom, winning a Most Improved Player of the Year award, Sixth Woman of the Year, four All-Star Game selections and a MVP.

“If you would talk to my dad about Jonquel right now, he would cry. He’s just super proud of her,” McPhee-McCuin said.

Jones and McPhee keep in touch throughout the year. McPhee-McCuin joked that her dad likely talks to Jones more than she does. When Jones was in the Finals last season with the Connecticut Sun, she flew McPhee out to see her play. His message to Jones this year: Stay locked-in.

“That’s the guy that picked her up at 5 in the morning and brought her to work out. That’s the one who said you need to meet my daughter. That’s her coach,” said McPhee-McCuin, who will attend Game 3 in Brooklyn, New York.

Clockwise from left to right: WNBA forward Jonquel Jones, Leroy F. Major, Gregory Treco and Kamela Forbes-Matheson, consul general of the Bahamas to New York, visit the Empire State Building in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bahamas’ independence July 10 in New York City.

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust

Jones’ presence in the WNBA follows that of Waltiea Rolle of Nassau, the first woman from the Bahamas to play in the league. Rolle appeared in several games with the Seattle Storm in 2014. The success that Jones has experienced in the WNBA has had a direct impact on the presence of women’s basketball in her home country. She’s become a role model in the league for Bahamian girls.

“It’s wild because you talk about Buddy Hield, Deandre Ayton and those guys but the girls never had someone to talk about,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Jonquel is the example for young ladies that aspire to play at the highest level.”

“One time ago, you would never see young ladies playing basketball. It was just always men,” said Philippe, a sportscaster for ZNS Northern Service in Freeport, Bahamas. “Since Jonquel, it’s grown so much in the Bahamas. We have a lot of young ladies that are taking part in basketball camps. It makes them think basketball now is something they can excel in just because Jonquel Jones has been able to do it.”

Jones, who said she has seen women’s basketball increase in popularity in the Bahamas, is committed to deepening the sport’s footprint.

“I want it to get to the point where they can stay at home and be able to develop their game and still have the possibility of being a scholarship athlete and going to college for free,” Jones said. “Right now it’s not at that level yet. If I could go back in time and not have to leave my family that would be amazing. I want that for the next generation.”

Jones credited figures such as McPhee-McCuin, who was instrumental in Jones’ transition to the U.S., and continues to stay tapped into the local talent. While Jones said she hasn’t found “the next Jonquel Jones” quite yet, she’s impressed by the pool of players working their way through the ranks.

Jones is a celebrity in the Bahamas. She can be found on “major posters” around the island. Locals rock her No. 35 jersey. She’s covered by the local print media and is featured on broadcast news frequently. She’s recognized by schools and organizations for her contributions to the community and her ambassadorship.

“Everybody knows who Jonquel is,” Philippe said.

Off the court, while in the States, Jones does her best to stay connected – mostly through music and family. On July 10, Bahamas Independence Day, Jones visited the Empire State Building and lit it in the Bahamas’ national colors of black, gold and aquamarine. Jones has also helped to raise awareness of her home country amid tragedy. Following the destruction to the Bahamas caused by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, Jones set up a GoFundMe page that helped to raise more than $47,000 for relief efforts.

“We consider Jonquel to be an ambassador of this country,” Philippe said. “She always represents the Bahamas.”

When she’s not hooping in the WNBA or playing overseas, Jones returns home. Philippe said one of Jones’ best qualities is that no matter how large her star has grown, her accessibility has never changed. She can be found at the local fish fry, walking and talking with community members. She offers assistance at the local YMCA where she first cultivated a passion for athletics.

“The only way you would know she’s a celebrity is because she stands out due to her height. She’s a celebrity to a lot of people, but when she comes home she’s just another Bahamian,” Philippe said.

From left to right: Guard Rebecca Allen of the Connecticut Sun, forward Jonquel Jones of the New York Liberty and forward Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun attempt to rebound the ball during Game 4 of the WNBA playoffs semifinals on Oct. 1 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

This WNBA season has been a bit of a roller coaster for Jones, her first season in New York after spending her first six years in the league with the Sun. She began the season still recovering from a foot injury she sustained at the end of the 2022 season. That, paired with getting used to a new coach, system and teammates resulted in an atypical start to her time in New York as she aimed to solidify her role. She ended the first half of the WNBA season averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds.

“She struggled initially. I think Jonquel was just uncomfortable at first playing with Stewie [Breanna Stewart] and all the other stars they have. … I think she was just trying to figure out her place,” said McPhee-McCuin, who talked to Jones at the time. “We talked about it because I saw her struggling.”

Jones’ struggles wouldn’t last past the All-Star break. As her health improved and the Liberty found its stride, Jones’ performance showed a return to form. In the 22 games of the second half of the season, she averaged 12.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 blocks. In August, the Liberty won its first Commissioner’s Cup against the Aces and Jones was named Commissioner’s Cup MVP.

That performance has carried into the playoffs, where Jones has been the Liberty’s most dominant and consistent performer. She has notched a double-double in each of the Liberty’s eight postseason games, setting a record for the most double-doubles in a single WNBA postseason. Through those eight games she is averaging 17.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.

McPhee-McCuin says she’s seen a new quality to Jones’ game this season, a certain “spiciness” in Jones’ physical play and demeanor on the court. It’s a quality that she hadn’t seen before, but one she always desired from the Liberty star.

McPhee-McCuin said it’s a sign of Jones’ growth as a player.

“We’ve always seen the talent in Jonquel, I just always thought she needed to have a little bit more spice in her game,” said McPhee McCuin, who coached Jones on the Bahamian national team. “Now you’re seeing that.”

To McPhee-McCuin, that extra grit in Jones’ play and competing hard for what she wants, in Jones’ case, the quest for her first WNBA title, comes directly from her Bahamian roots.

“You’re seeing it because JJ wants to win a championship,” McPhee-McCuin said. “This is the most assertive I’ve ever seen her. That’s the Bahamas.”

“There’s not a lot that JJ hadn’t achieved from a basketball standpoint. This is something [a WNBA championship] she wants. I think it’d be huge for her. As far as the Bahamas, we’ll celebrate her, but in our eyes, JJ was already a champion.”

— Yolett McPhee-McCuin

As the Liberty prepare for Game 3 in an attempt to chip away at a 2-0 series deficit to the Aces, most Bahamian households will be tuned in to watch Jones take the floor. On game days, the Bahamian aquamarine more closely resembles the Liberty seafoam.

“Everyone is Team New York. The Bahamas, we’re all New York Liberty fans,” McPhee-McCuin said.

In just a short time, Jones has developed a WNBA career that places her in an elite group. It’s been a championship that’s been most elusive.

Whether Jones does or doesn’t win her first title, her legacy as a winner in her home country has long been stamped.

“There’s not a lot that JJ hadn’t achieved from a basketball standpoint. This is something she wants. I think it’d be huge for her,” McPhee-McCuin said. “As far as the Bahamas, we’ll celebrate her, but in our eyes, JJ was already a champion.”

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.