Merlakia Jones Q&A – Cleveland Rockers
Under new coach Dan Hughes, Merlakia Jones and the Cleveland Rockers stunned experts last year: rebounding from a 7-25 record in 1999, they earned a berth in the 2000 WNBA playoffs. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for the 5’9″ guard, but throughout Jones has maintained a high level of performance: Eastern Conference coaches have named her to the All-Star team two years running. “Lake” has also kept an eye on college ball and was proud to see her Florida Gators return to the Women’s NCAA tournament.
WB: How has the college game changed since you graduated in ’95?
MJ: One of the things that has really changed is the exposure of women’s basketball. I don’t know if it’s due to the WNBA, but the level of play has increased tremendously. The players that are coming out of high school are going right into the starting line ups. And they’re a lot stronger. They seem to be a lot more focused. They’re determined to go to college and then, because they have something to shoot for once they finish college, to participate in the WNBA.
WB: What will it take to get a coach to leave the security of a college contract and come to WNBA?
MJ: I think that’s the key word: Security. In college you can have security. When you come to the professional level, there’s no real security at all. Even on down to the players. If you’re not performing, you’re out. In college, if you’re not performing, you just go to the bench, but you still have your scholarship. (laughs)
WB: Many thought Dan Hughes deserved coach of the year because of last season’s turnaround. What has he brought to Cleveland?
MJ:: He knows the X’s and O’s. Regardless of your level of play or the talent on the team he is going to draw the best out of each and every member of your team. I think we had the team intact, we just needed some more pieces of the puzzle.
WB: When you say a coach knows their X’s and O’s, what does it mean to you?
MJ: Knowing that you can have the best players on your team, but if you can’t put them in the right situation, or have the right combination in at a certain time, then your team is in shambles. A coach who knows what his combinations are — what players he needs on the floor at a certain time. Knows how to make his players better to hide their weaknesses (laughs). Just the strategies for how we’re going to play a team: How we’re going to play and stop the pick and roll Houston uses? How are we going to stop the post player from New York from getting in to the heads of our post players?
Coach Hughes is a good student of the game. He’s constantly trying to find ways to put our players in a positive situation. How are we going to get over the hump where we can beat New York or L.A. or Orlando – any team in the WNBA, it doesn’t matter what their record. He comes up with a great game plan each and every night. It’s up to us to go out and execute it. He can talk to us until he’s blue in the face. But as players, we have to be the one to go out and execute the game plan.
WB: Are you worried about Cleveland drafting a 2 guard to back you up?
MJ: The positive thing is it makes you not become complacent. (Laughs) Knowing there’s some behind me lurking, trying to take my position, is going to make me want to go out each and every day — not only during the season and during practice, but during the off season — to work on whatever I can bring to this team. If it’s not scoring all the time, it’s leadership – being vocal leader on and off the floor. That’s a positive thing. I don’t worry about someone coming in and taking my position or my spot. I feel if I’m not working hard enough and they’re outworking me, then they should have my position, because that’s being lackadaisical on my part. Knowing how hard I’ve fought, and how long it’s taken me to get to this point I don’t think that I’ll ever become complacent.
WB: If your Florida coach, Carol Ross, said she was interested in coming to WNBA, what would you tell her?
MJ: I guess it depends on the individual. If you feel you’ve achieved all you can achieve at the college level and you want to try the professional level, then go ahead. Take a shot at it. There’s nothing wrong with trying. But knowing if you leave a stable program and you’re coming to a team that’s looking for a coach – you just have to be prepared for the growth – for the different attitudes that you have to deal with. It’s not like in college where it’s, “I’m the leader, and what I say goes.” We’re not children like we are in college. Well, I wouldn’t say children, but growing up. You’re playing mom or dad if you are in college. That’s a big adjustment, not just for the coaches that are leaving college level, but also for the players who are coming from the college level to the professional level. Just adjusting. You’re not in college anymore — you’re on your own. But knowing Coach Ross, I’d doubt if she’d leave Florida. (Laughs) I don’t think they’re going to let her leave.
WB: Where are all these college players coming from? Do you see girls starting younger?
MJ: I think just knowing that there’s life after college — knowing they have an opportunity after college — makes young girls want to start out early and try to reach their potential. Not only them, but also their parents. (Laughs) Now when I’m out speaking to young kids, their parents are asking, “Now how can I get my child enrolled in this camp?” I think they are eager – more than the kids are. (Laughs) But it’s really fun. And that’s what it’s going to take for the younger generation to come up, and for (the WNBA) to continue. That’s what makes it so exciting for me, being an ambassador for this league to make sure that it’s still around when they graduate from college.
WB: Can you talk about what coach Hughes brings to Cleveland?
MJ: When he first came in he had a talk with each every player and told each and every player what he thought about their game and what he expected out of them. He just wanted us to play together at a team – that nobody felt they had to the kind of leader that scored all the points all of the time. Our team – we can put the ball in anyone’s hand and they can score and lead us to victory.
He didn’t let you be lax on the floor. If he saw you weren’t working hard, he would get on you. It would make you say, “Well, why’s he ragging on me?” (laughs) But he wouldn’t allow you to hang your head. If you made a mistake, he would probably fuss, but then he’d pull you aside and say “This is what you need to do.” It made you feel good as a player, and you’d want to not make the same mistake again.
We were able to go to him and talk to him if we felt that something wasn’t right. He’d listen to our opinions. He took them seriously. If he did have a problem with something, or something someone was doing on the team, he would fuss right then, but after that it would be over with. He didn’t hold a grudge or say “I’m having this issue so you’re not going to play.” Just the little things. The little intangible things that can really destroy a team. He didn’t let that happen.
WB: Many were surprise Cleveland took Ann Wauters as last year’s first round pick. Can you talk about her growth?
MJ: To be honest, even I was surprised: only 19 years old, being away, coming to the States and being able to adapt to the level of play of the post players. And then when she got in and seeing her frame, I was like, “Oh my goodness.” (laughs) But being around her and getting to know her – she’s a very hard worker, and she beat the odds. When she first started, she was s little timid. But as the season progressed, she started to be in the weight room, her game became a lot more consistent and she gained a lot more confidence. (laughs) You could see that meanness coming out as the season progressed.
Ann is very agile. She can do post moves and she can block shots and also she can run the floor. It was hard for most post players to keep up with her. That was a great asset. Coach Hughes (has) been over there to visit her. She’s put on some weight and she’s a lot more aggressive. She’s adding more moves to her repertoire. So that’s nothing for the best for the team.
WB: Why aren’t you playing abroad this off-season?
MJ: When I first came out of school I tried it, but I just couldn’t adjust. It wasn’t the level of play, but the environment and the culture. I really couldn’t get in to that. And being so far away from home – I’m kind of a homebody. (Laughs) I don’t like to be too far away from my family. But knowing that just about all of my teammates are over there playing, I just had to keep myself conditioned. There’s never really an off-season – you might take off a month or two, but after that it’s back to work. Knowing that I’m one of the team leaders on this team now, I have to come in ready. I can’t come in unconditioned or just trying to get conditioned in training camp. I have to come in at least half way in shape for training camp (Laughs).