Brandon Jones is a long way from home, and coming back to the Vancouver Island University Mariners for his final season of eligibility was no easy decision.
The Portland native's family is very important to him but he has spent much of the last three years away from them, pursuing his basketball dreams.
He carries them with him everywhere he goes with their names tattooed on his arms and back: His mother Mona Faith Jones, his father Stefan and his sister Breanna, 27.
One more tattoo that reads "In time of test, family is best" that goes across his collarbone is a reminder of how he has got to this point.
"Everything can be going bad for you, but you know for a fact your family is going to be with you," he said.
His closeness to his family, and his long time girlfriend Sabrina Mareno, makes it that much more surprising as to why he is coming back for his final year at VIU.
Last year was originally going to be his final year with the Mariners, and he wrote the perfect script on which to leave. He established himself as one of the top players in the country while leading the Mariners to a surprise Canadian Colleges Athletic Association championship, where he was named tournament MVP.
There was not much else he can accomplish, aside from CCAA player of the year honours.
But he didn't want to have any regrets.
"When you've been playing basketball all your life, you don't want to just stop when you can be playing, so what's one more year of playing?" said Jones.
Jones is hoping to catch on in Europe next year if the opportunity arises or even in the Canadian professional league if that is a possibility. He knows the NBA dream is not going to happen, but to get a paycheque to play basketball could still be a reality.
"It's about being a professional athlete, that's the major goal, whether it's overseas or not," he said.
When basketball is done he wants to work with special needs kids in some role.
Mariners head coach Matt Kuzminski is thrilled to have Jones come back, especially with Pacific Western Athletic Association rookie of the year Jon Bethell out for the season with a broken foot and broken hand.
This means Jones will likely remain at point guard, instead of moving back to his more natural shooting guard position.
"He's able to do so many things on the floor, he makes everyone's job easier," said Kuzminski.
Jones arrived in Nanaimo on Saturday after driving up with his father from Portland.
It is the first time he has been back in the Harbour City since he left school in the spring.
He did his share of celebrating with his friends and family when he got back home - his mother spent the next two weeks watching the final over and over again - but it didn't take long for him to realize that he had to get back in shape while playing pick up hoops.
Jones spent the rest of summer working out and working on his game, poring over film and trying to figure out how he can improve, which is easier said than done.
He emerged from the shadows of Jacob Thom and long time friend Richard Townsend Gant last year, and averaged 19.43 points a game and 4.33 assists a game, but it was his work in the playoffs that was truly remarkable, earning MVP selections at both the PacWest and CCAA championships.
His post-season accolades were many, including an all-Canadian selection and being named PacWest athlete of the year across all sports.
"I spent more time. .. on counters and setting up easier ways to score and to play smarter," said Jones.
"I watched a lot of film on LeBron (James) in his first year with Cleveland and now how he plays, he still scores the same, but it takes less energy. .. it's smarter basketball."
Kuzminski was busy this offseason trying to provide him with a supporting cast, after they lost forward Tyler Olsen and Adam Connelly. New to the fold are Seth Goodman, Liam Horn and Bryson Cox. Meanwhile, the head coach is hoping for a few returning players like Clayton Billett and Jason McKee to step up and take on bigger roles.
"A lot of guys around here had a great summer training at Over The Hurdle Athletics and all of the stuff we do at VIU, so I think some of them will be able to step in to increased roles and be able to contribute more than they did last year," said Kuzminski.
The Mariners open their training camp today with a run at the Rotary Bowl and a scrimmage back at the VIU gym as they also get an up close and personal look at walk-ons.
This will be Jones' final year at VIU, and he is hoping to leave his mark.
"It hasn't hit me yet," said Jones. "After this year and starting next year, it will probably hit me that my basketball career is over. But right now I'm not thinking this is it, I'm thinking I'm going as hard as I can whether this is my first or last year."
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