There’s a lot of hype surrounding the 2021-22 college basketball season.
UConn brings back AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers, who will be joined by best friend and top 2021 high school prospect Azzi Fudd. The addition of Fudd gives the Huskies three No. 1 high school prospects on their roster, with senior Christyn Williams being the third. South Carolina returns key starters as well in Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke to go along with the addition of fourTop 15 high school prospects. NC State brings back Elissa Cunane, Jakia Brown-Turner and adds former five-star transfer Madison Hayes from Mississippi State. Maryland also returns key pieces in Diamond Miller, Ashley Owusu and Angel Reese. Stars like Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith also return a year older to their respective programs.
With the focus on so many of the East Coast teams and star players in the Midwest, one West Coast team doesn’t appear to get as much attention: defending-champion Stanford, which returns the 2021 NCAA Tournament Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Haley Jones.
“Honestly, I don’t really look at any of that,” Jones said in a phone interview last Friday. “I’m not going on social media looking at that type of stuff, but I think it’s the typical storyline you see with Stanford in general. You see, going into the tournament, we were the No. 1 overall seed and we were still on some levels disrespected. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I mean it’s nothing that we’re not used to.”
Jones averaged 20.5 points and six rebounds per game in the tournament to complete Stanford’s 31-2 season.
Throughout the tournament, her fansbase grew exponentially as she got thousands of new followers on Instagram after every game. Jones’ personality radiates through her feed, highlighted by a clip of her hugging best friend Boston when the South Carolina center missed a putback against Stanford at the buzzer to end the Gamecocks’ season in the Final Four, and a simple selfie of Jones eating a burger in the locker room with sixth-year player Anna Wilson and sophomore Jana Van Gytenbeek after winning the national championship. The rising junior’s witty and heartfelt posts aren’t the only reason why she gained tens of thousands of followers in the span of a couple weeks in April.
Ratings in the San Antonio bubble were a huge success throughout the tournament.
4.1 million viewers for the 2021 @ncaawbb Championship game between @ArizonaWBB & @StanfordWBB— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) April 6, 2021
☑️ Most-viewed #NationalChampionship since 2014
☑️ Most-viewed #WFinalFour weekend since 2012
☑️ Most-viewed Sweet 16 since 2013
More: https://t.co/AoNNLWl7CQ | #ncaaW pic.twitter.com/RzbHTWwAG4
“I think women’s basketball has gained a lot of respect, but that’s not saying that it’s where it should be right now,” Jones said. “I think there’s room to grow, but I think respect, just overall viewership has grown a lot. I think that’s because there’s no super teams in college basketball. You saw that there were eight to nine different teams that people thought could win.”
Jones also pointed to a widened social media spotlight on women’s basketball as a contribution to the sport’s growth. Despite her own Instagram spurt during the national tournament raising her to 39.8k Instagram followers, Jones is still behind teammates Wilson, who has 87.5k, and rising sophomore Cameron Brink, who has 131k.
“There are so many more social media outlets for girl’s basketball,” Jones said. “Growing up, there were just men’s pages, you know? Now, we have Overtime for just women’s basketball, you have WSlam, you have so many different things. You have all these social media outlets just for promoting women’s basketball, but also women’s sports in general. I think the continued growth of that just gives us more of a platform.”
In between her hectic schedule of maintaining the study-sports-life balance of a Stanford student-athlete, Jones has somehow found time to help build one of women’s sports newest social media platforms.
After helping the United States to a 71-60 AmeriCup semifinal win over Brazil last Friday night in Puerto Rico, Jones said she is currently an intern for TOGETHXR, the women’s sports media company co-founded by Sue Bird, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel and Alex Morgan. Jones has taken an interest in media and has said she dove in the Stanford network of Ros Gold-Onwude and Chiney Ogwumike for any tips to help guide her post-basketball career plans. The one interview she’d most like to have one day is Beyoncé.
The social media space is a good place to gauge a player’s popularity and in 2023, a player of Jones’ stature in California would likely be in position to ink endorsement deals off their name, image and likeness. Jones, who will be a senior in 2023, probably wouldn’t reap the benefits of the new state bill, but she’s all in on the next generation of college athletes being compensated.
“I think that we deserve it,” Jones said. “We put in so much work behind the scenes. I think it’s a good time for them to finally come around. College athletes put in so much work, we do so much, we’re normal students. I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world. After school, after class, I don’t just go to my friends and do homework, I’m going to do rehab. I’m going to get treatment, I’m going to condition, practice, I’m going to games, I’m doing internships just like any other student, but I’m also working out. I’m currently here in Puerto Rico doing my internship while online classes are going on.
I think we do so much, it’s finally being recognized and we do have a platform to advocate for others, so to be able to be compensated for that, I think it’s that time, honestly.”
Jones helped lead the United States to an Americup gold on Saturday with a 75-59 win over Puerto Rico. Saturday’s win also came on the first day the United States officially recognized Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
“To be able to wear USA across our chests with a predominantly Black team and bring home a gold on Juneteenth is going to be more of a special honor than usual with USA Basketball,” Jones said. “We’re all looking forward to it and I think it just carries a special weight.”
With a top four finish in the tournament, the United States punched a ticket to a FIBA Women’s World Cup 2022 qualifying tournament.