Courtesy of Matt Dewkett/Yale Athletics

After a nearly year-long hiatus, some Bulldogs are getting ready to make their return to the basketball court. A search for them at the John J. Lee Amphitheater will bear no fruit, as they will be over 1,500 miles away under the Caribbean sun.

Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones has been named an assistant coach for the USA Men’s AmeriCup Qualifying Team. Joining him on the roster will be Yale forward Paul Atkinson ’21, who has been selected to his first Team USA squad. The team will train in Puerto Rico from Feb. 13-18, followed by games against the Bahamas on Feb. 19 and Mexico on Feb. 20. 

“I’m just happy to get back to doing what I love: coaching the game of basketball,” Jones said. “Representing your country through USA Basketball is tremendous. I’m looking forward to it.”

With no basketball season in the Ivy League this year, it has been 11 months since Jones and Atkinson represented Yale in a competition. With Atkinson set to graduate in the spring before going to Notre Dame to play out his remaining NCAA eligibility, the November announcement seemed to mark the end of Jones and Atkinson sharing the court.

All of that changed when Jones and the rest of the Team USA coaching staff got together to build a roster for the upcoming games. Jones brought up Atkinson’s name as a potential member of the team, and after watching his film, the other coaches agreed. Atkinson got the call.

“I was saddened that I never would get a chance to coach him again but now I do, and I’m looking forward to making him run a few laps,” Jones quipped. 

Preparing to travel to Puerto Rico to play basketball during the pandemic has proven to be an experience unlike any other. Jones has been quarantining in compliance with USA Basketball guidelines, and he told the News that, through a combination of both Team USA and Yale protocols, he took five different COVID-19 tests last week. 

Atkinson noted the difficulty of finding an open gym in the New Haven area where he can get shots up but added that he has been able to stay in shape by running on a treadmill and using a weight rack he has at his home. Still, getting back to game speed will be no walk in the park.

“[Basketball is] a contact sport,” Atkinson said. “It’s gonna take one or two practices to get back to … what you’re used to doing.”

As Atkinson gets set to take the floor again, he will not be joined by his Yale teammates. Instead, he will be a part of a 14-man roster headlined by seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson and two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas. 

In fact, Atkinson is the only collegiate player on the team, as all other Division I conferences play out the thick of their league schedules this month before the NCAA Tournament is set to begin in March. Jones spoke about how learning from and playing with more experienced players will help Atkinson develop his game.

“The professional game is much more physical, and a lot more things are allowed, so [Atkinson is] going to get a firsthand look at what it’s like to be a professional player,” Jones said. “He’s gonna be playing with all these guys who play in professional leagues and who had some success at different levels, so it’s going to be a great experience for him.”

While Atkinson will be making his national team debut, it is not Jones’ first rodeo when it comes to coaching with Team USA.

In addition to being a court coach at the 2006 U18 National Team Trials, Jones also coached with USA Basketball as an assistant at the 2007 Pan-American Games. The head coach of that team was Jay Wright, national championship-winning coach at Villanova University, who said their team that year managed to find success despite having the youngest roster at the competition.

In addition to being a court coach at the 2006 U18 National Team Trials, Jones (top right) also coached with USA Basketball as an assistant at the 2007 Pan-American games. (Photo: Courtesy of USA Basketball)

“[Jones] did a great job with us,” Wright said at the end of his media availability Saturday. “We were kind of sent in as sacrificial lambs. We were playing against all the pros with college guys … We didn’t medal but we were kind of proud by the end of the kind of team we had become, and [Jones] was a big part of it.”

A far cry from the ’07 Pan-Am team that finished with two wins and three losses, Team USA is currently 4-0 and has already qualified for FIBA AmeriCup 2022 heading into its last two qualification games, and this roster has much more professional playing experience — in the NBA, the G League and in numerous basketball leagues overseas. 

Jones said he has kept himself busy during what should have been his 22nd season at the helm of the Bulldogs by watching other teams play, including a lot of European basketball. He added that once the Ivy League returns to play, some teams will come out on the other side a better program. Jones is determined to make sure that Yale is one of those.

“Watching European basketball and other people play just gives you some different ideas of things that you can tweak within your own system, and things that you can add or subtract,” Jones explained. “That’s what I’ve been doing here in this offseason is just really trying to get a feel for different organizations and how they do what they do, and see if we can add those things to our program and make it better.”

While studying the game has been valuable, Jones is more than ready to be back on the court.

“I’m just really excited about coaching again and getting in the gym — and having an opportunity to coach Joe Johnson and Isaiah Thomas, what could be better than that?” Jones said. “Being a part of this group of USA Basketball, I’m very thankful. And I feel humbled that I have an opportunity to do this.”

The United States will play both of their upcoming games in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu