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Jones looks to be first African-American to go No. 1

by Mike G. Morreale

It's no wonder Seth Jones doesn't just throw his arms in the air and confess to the hounding media that the decision to ultimately choose hockey over basketball is the one question he's answered a million times in recent months.

Truth is, though, the 18-year-old defenseman realizes it isn't often that a potential first-overall NHL draft pick also happens to be the son of a former NBA superstar and current assistant coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

"I've been bombarded with questions about that, which is normal I guess," Jones said on the final day of U.S. National Junior Team selection camp on Tuesday. "But my dad [Popeye Jones] didn't encourage me to play hockey; we knew nothing about hockey. He asked Joe Sakic what we needed to do to get involved and I was hooked."

It was actually during Popeye's tenure with Denver Nuggets in 1999-2000 when he approached Sakic about Seth and his desire to give hockey a shot. The rest is history.

The one question that always seems to generate a smile is the one that involves him possibly becoming the first black player selection first overall in the NHL Draft.

"It would mean a lot to me, but me and my family have never been into the race thing … whether your white or black it really doesn't matter," Jones said. "Going No. 1 is special. But I could see why that is a big deal around the world. It's just that I never really thought about that kind of stuff."

Barring serious injury, Jones will no doubt be among the 23-man roster headed to Ufa, Russia, for the 2013 World Junior Championship.

Said U.S. starting goalie John Gibson: "There's no doubt Seth Jones will probably be playing in the NHL next season."

Following the final day of camp practice at the New York Rangers' practice facility on Tuesday, the team will be driven to the airport and flown to Helsinki, Finland. That's where training camp will continue, Wednesday through Sunday.

Jones was asked if he considers himself a role model for young African-Americans. If chosen first, he'd also become the seventh American-born player all-time to go No. 1, and first since Patrick Kane in 2007.

"Yeah, I think that's a great category to be in," he said. "Anytime I can enthuse other people to play the game of hockey, I'm obviously doing something good."

That's certainly music to the ears of Lester Patrick Award winner Willie O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958. That occurred almost 11 years after Jackie Robinson's big-league debut.

Even if Jones wasn't chosen No. 1 overall and slipped to second, he would still be the highest-drafted black player in draft history. Evander Kane currently holds that distinction after being selected fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers on June 26, 2009.

What would be Jones' advice to any young and aspiring African-American hoping to one day play hockey as well as he does?

"I'd tell them to try new things," Jones said. "The NHL only has a certain amount of African-American players and that kind of threads people off to play other sports that African-Americans usually play, such as football. You need to try new things. You can do anything if you set your mind to it."

Jones is living proof.

Following Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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