Niles North girls basketball coach Dan Paxson remembers meeting Kienya Jones for the first time when the now-junior forward was in eighth grade. He said he didn’t know who she was, but he liked her confidence.
“It was after one of our games, she introduced herself and said, ‘I’m going to play for you next year,’ ” Paxson said.
Along with predicting she would play varsity ball as a freshman, which she did, Jones said she also told the coach he would be able to rely on her in the coming years.
“I said, ‘When I come to play for you, you won’t have much to worry about, and don’t worry about my grades. I’ll just be the best player you can have,’ ” Jones said. “I’m not there yet, there is still room for improvement.”
That may be true, but after a freshman season in which she was getting acclimated to varsity ball and an injury-plague sophomore campaign, Jones has been one of the breakout stars on the local high school girls basketball scene this season.
The 5-foot-10 forward has had some monster games for a Niles North team that went 6-5 in its first 11 games, after finishing just 4-26 a year ago. Jones scored 37 points and had 13 rebounds in a 78-75 win over Fenwick in a Nov. 26 contest that was part of the Somebody’s Hero Thanksgiving Tournament.
It was Niles North’s first win over perennial powerhouse Fenwick in Paxson’s seven years in charge, and Jones was named to the all-tournament team.
On Dec. 7, Jones scored 27 points, including the game-winning layup, in a 65-64 win over rival Niles West. Jones finished with 34 points, 17 rebounds (11 of them on the offensive end), four assists and nine steals in a 72-68 loss to Deerfield on Dec. 13. The defeat dropped the Vikings to 0-3 in the CSL North.
Paxson said the performances are signs of Jones’ continued maturity as a player and person. The coach said Jones always had the athletic ability — she is a standout sprinter on the Niles North track team — but previously was a bit raw as a basketball player.
“From freshman year to now, she’s really matured on and off the court in many ways: physically and in terms of her leadership,” Paxson said. “She did have an up-and-down year last year with a lot of nagging injuries. She never really got in rhythm. This year, she’s healthy, hungry and focused and she’s off to a great start.”
Jones said she entered the offseason with something to prove after being slowed by a knee injury as a sophomore. She said the time she spent with the Illinois Hustle AAU team over the summer was productive, as she teamed with Maine West standout frontcourt players Brittany Collins and Julia Huinker.
“My knee injury messed up a lot of things [last season]. When I did come back, I was scared to play my game. I felt like I let a lot of people down,” Jones said. “But [playing with and against Collins and Huinker] helped with my post offense and defense. I’m a short post player, but it taught me how to play bigger, use my body to my advantage.
“[Other teammates] helped me with my ball-handling and just being positive and really hustling. It was a good summer.”
Paxson said from the beginning of preseason practice he noticed Jones was taking a very serious approach to the game and was acting as one of the team’s vocal leaders. He said Jones has become a dynamic player this winter.
“She’s developing her back-to-the-basket game. She is so physically strong, that once she gets the ball in the low box, there is not a lot people are able to do with that,” Paxson said. “Last year, she developed a sound drop step to the hoop. A lot of her points come on steals or turnovers. She is real active defensively and gets a lot of layups in the open court. She is relentless as an offensive rebounder and gets a lot of put-backs. Her jump shot and 3-point shooting, we’re working on that.”
Jones admits she can improve her on-ball defending, though she does have a good teacher for that skill. Her older brother Charles McKinney, who played his first three high school seasons at Maine East, is a junior at DePaul and considered one of the Big East’s better defensive players.
Perhaps Jones’ biggest challenge in the coming weeks and months will be her ability to handle defenses designed to stop her. She may have been a bit of an unknown quantity at the beginning of the season, but no longer.
However, Jones said she and the Vikings will be able to make the adjustment.
“I have so much trust in all my teammates, that if [an opponent is] triple-teaming me, I can kick it out to Shar [Rasho], our best shooter, or Stephanie Donado, Olivia Schaps or Alyssa Brand. They all are good shooters,” Jones said. “Also, I just have to be quick and get the defense moving, so it won’t get to the point where they can double- and triple-team me.”