Stanford women's basketball -- How Haley Jones gives the Cardinal their best shot to win another NCAA title

Sophomore guard Haley Jones leads undefeated and top-ranked Stanford with 15.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG and 4.1 APG. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

A knee injury ended Haley Jones' freshman season at Stanford last January. A pandemic scrambled women's college basketball soon after and forced her home to nearby Santa Cruz, California, to complete classes online and continue her rehab on her own.

Jones was still there in August, when smoke blotted out the sun and choked the air as wildfires crept ever closer. Any doubts about her knee or an uncertain season receded in importance, especially when the evacuation order came.

"I wasn't really focused on rehabbing anymore," Jones recalled of those late summer days. "I was more focused on getting ready to pack up the house. That was definitely a time where I had to take a step back and see the bigger picture."

The fires spared her home. Her body healed. She and her teammates returned to practice. And the 2020-21 women's college basketball season, with its many postponed or canceled games and COVID-19 pauses, continues on its course.

So it's perhaps no surprise that a player whose greatest asset is her resilience is one of the season's breakthrough stars. Need a point guard? Jones can do that. Need a power forward? The 6-foot-1 sophomore has you covered. Need someone to create her own shot and take responsibility with the game on the line? Not a problem.

In adapting to the unprecedented conditions that coincided with her rehab and return to the court, Jones proved a model of how to succeed in 2020. But in mastering position-less basketball, Jones -- who averages a team-high 15.4 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game -- provides a blueprint for how Stanford hopes to succeed well beyond this season.

"I don't know that it really matters where we play her," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose top-ranked Cardinal face their toughest test of the season so far Friday at No. 6 Arizona (7 p.m. ET).

Stanford's first No. 1 recruit since Chiney Ogwumike almost a decade earlier, Jones helped the Cardinal adjust last season without injured DiJonai Carrington, and she settled in alongside Lexie Hull and Kiana Williams as the most productive players. But a knee injury sustained Jan. 19 during a win at Oregon State ended her first season after 18 games.

"She was poised to really finish strong," VanDerveer said. "When you're learning something new at the beginning of the year you have to think through things. By the end of the year it would have been second nature for her. Her injury was really tough, for her but for our team, too."

"I asked her to do something that I honestly have never asked any player to do. She basically played one through four." Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer on Haley Jones' versatility as a freshman last season

That much is true for most freshmen as they grow comfortable with the pace and physical demands at the college level. But Jones wasn't just getting up to speed at one position; she was adapting to just about all of them.

"I think the No. 1 thing that maybe I didn't know about Haley was just what an incredibly high basketball IQ she has. I asked her to do something that I honestly have never asked any player to do," VanDerveer said. "She basically played one through four. She knew all of our plays and our out-of-bounds plays [from each position].

"That, to me, was amazing because we run quite a bit of stuff."

The injury was a setback, but no one could have envisioned what Jones' path back would look like amidst a pandemic. Instead of physical therapy on campus, she had to figure out a routine at home in the spring. Instead of being around teammates and friends in the gym or dorms, she and her older brother had to look for outdoor courts or work out in the sand dunes along the coast.

And Jones had the ever-shifting uncertainty of a summer and fall spent debating whether there could or should be a season at all. After initially using the traditional start of the team's summer session in June as a motivating force, only to see it canceled due to the pandemic, she quickly deduced she would need to be flexible.

"I can't be betting on a season this year, but I still need to be at peak performance just in case," Jones said of her thinking. "So I changed my mindset, instead of working for something so far off in the distance I was trying to find little goals I could reach daily and weekly."

That approach also served her well when the Cardinal eventually returned to a largely deserted campus. Daily testing, virtual passports to enter buildings, an arsenal of masks for home, practice and everywhere between, online coursework, game postponements and cancelations -- all of it became the new normal. But if pandemic reality was one more role to learn, Jones mastered it in a manner that belied her years.

Stanford's No. 1 ranking entering Friday's game against Arizona is evidence of her success.

Although they had to grind out a low-scoring win at then-No. 10 UCLA shortly before Christmas, the Cardinal have been among the most prolific offensive teams in the country. They scored 80 points in each of their first six games and more than 100 in three of them. Stanford tops the rankings because it has so many players capable of playing at that tempo -- from Hull and Williams to standout freshman Cameron Brink and emerging sophomore and noted above-the-rim artist Fran Belibi. But it's no coincidence that Jones also leads the team in assists (4.1 APG) as well as scoring and rebounding.

"The best thing Haley brings to our team is great court vision, so it really helps our team run," VanDerveer said earlier this season. "That's something we're really focused on. When she's out there, we want to push the tempo. She does that really well -- and she can do that at any position. Our team, in a lot of ways, is really trying to play position-less basketball, where you're all moving catching, passing, shooting 3s."

As wowed as her coach was by Jones' ability to process so many positions while simultaneously adjusting to college basketball a season ago, the multitasking was just how Jones has always understood basketball.

"Position-less basketball, to me, is no matter who you are, or what sub is happening, you're able to play any position needed from you," Jones said. "And you're able to fill any spot on the floor within the offense. If I get a rebound, I'm able to push it, and I know the plays from the point guard so I can just run it from the top. Or if Kiana gets it, I can run the wing."

For Jones, in a year in which injury, pandemic and even natural disaster conspired to upend any sense of normalcy, that spirit of adaptability was needed to get through the day.

"It was a lot of constantly being on your toes in case something changed," Jones said of her year. "And being flexible with whatever came."