What You Need to Know:
* A leading candidate for Freshman All-America and Freshman of the Year in the Sun Belt, shortstop Justin Jones is hitting .309 with 26 RBI and 35 runs scored.
* Jones leads all Sun Belt freshmen in batting average, hits and runs and is second in RBI.
* He led Houston County High School to a state title in 2014 and played for Warner Robins in the 2009 Little League World Series.
ATLANTA -- Justin Jones came out of the womb playing shortstop. Or so it seems when you watch Georgia State's precocious freshman.
The rookie from Warner Robins, Ga., has been the Panthers' starting shortstop from Opening Day, and his play has been a big reason why Georgia State, which plays at Troy this weekend, has remained at or near the top of the Sun Belt Conference standings throughout the season.
But that's nothing new for Jones, who says he began playing baseball at age two or three. He has been a shortstop as long as he can remember, from tee-ball to Warner Robins' berth in the 2009 Little League World Series to a 2014 state title at Houston County (Ga.) High School.
"It's all happened so fast. I'm just happy that I've been able to play as much as I have," Jones said. "The level of baseball is a lot higher, for sure. The guys are bigger, faster, stronger, and every pitcher the other team brings in is tough."
Hitting first or second in the lineup, Jones is batting .309 with 12 extra base hits, and he has driven in 26 runs while scoring 35. He leads all Sun Belt freshmen in batting average, hits, and runs and is tied for first in RBI.
But it's his smooth play at shortstop that really catches your eye.
"For our team, his impact has been greater defensively because we needed someone to come in and take over that spot and give our team confidence up the middle," head coach Greg Frady said. "However, you can't overlook his impact offensively, hitting at the top of the lineup, getting on base as much as he does and being a table-setter for the middle of the order."
When asked which adjustment has been easier, hitting or fielding, Jones answered, "I'd say the fielding. Catching a baseball is catching a baseball. And I can thank the coaches I've had in the past in addition to the coaches here for helping me. I guess that's what I've always been good at."
Jones' seemingly effortless transition to Division I baseball has been aided by the veteran infielders around him, particularly senior second baseman and double-play partner David Levy.
"I just remind him that it's the same game he played in high school, it's just faster and people hit the ball harder at you, so don't overthink it," Levy said.
Levy has not been surprised by Jones' poise and productive play.
"Just watching him in the fall, you could just see that he has so much talent and confidence," Levy said. "He's just going to keep getting better, and it's going to be exciting to follow him."
With Levy and Jones manning the middle, the Panthers have turned 47 double plays on the season--tied for the Sun Belt lead--after totalling just 35 all of last season.
Hitting first or second for most of the season, Jones has contributed numerous big hits offensively, along with his stout play on defense.
He drove in the winning run in an 11-inning victory at UT Arlington, and in a sweep at Appalachian State, he knocked in the go-ahead run in the 12th inning of Game 1, and then started the Panthers' ninth-inning rally with a one-out double in Game 2. Last weekend against Texas State, he delivered his first home run, a two-run shot that capped a six-run rally in the Panthers' 10-5 victory.
Even before he arrived at Georgia State, Jones was no stranger to big moments in big games. Last spring, he drove in a run and earned the victory on the mound in the deciding game of the Class AAAAA state championship series against Whitewater High School, one day after he kept Houston County alive with a walk-off hit in Game 2 of the series.
"Any time a freshman is hitting over .300 and playing every day at shortstop, there is a level of exceeding expectations," Frady said. "So there are times I'm surprised because that's pretty special. Then on the other hand, I'm not surprised because I just believe in him.
"He definitely has his place as one of the top freshmen we've had at Georgia State."