“[Terrence Jones] brings a lot to the game. Defensively he’s very long and active, rebounds the basketball well. Offensively he’s knocking the 3 down now, but he handles the ball very well. When he has a bigger forward closing out on him, he can make plays for his teammates which is the style we play, so he’s the X factor going into every single night.” -- James Harden
After a slow start where they experimented with an ill-fitting Twin Towers lineup, the Houston Rockets have found themselves over the last few weeks. They are 9-3 in their last 12 games, a streak that coincides with second-year power forward Terrence Jones moving into the starting line-up. Jones has made the most of the opportunity, averaging nine points, six rebounds and one block a game on 51 percent shooting, good for an 18.2 PER.
Getting on the floor has been an uphill battle for Jones, who played only 18 games as a rookie. At various points last season, the Rockets had five other young guys -- Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson -- at his position. Of the five, only Motiejunas was taken later than Jones, the No. 18 pick in 2012. A year later, Jones is the only one still standing in Houston.
Despite his draft pedigree, it’s hard to call him an underdog. A consensus Top 10 recruit in the class of 2010, Jones was one of the crown jewels of John Calipari’s second recruiting class at Kentucky. He was a star the day he walked on campus, averaging 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 43 percent shooting as a freshman. Along with Brandon Knight, he led Kentucky to the Final Four, where they lost a one-point nail-biter to eventual champion UConn.
Like most of Calipari’s elite recruits, Jones was widely presumed to be a one-and-done player. However, with the threat of a season-long lockout looming, he decided to return for his sophomore season. If he had declared, he would have been a lottery pick, at worst. In a draft as thin up top as 2011, it’s hard to say how high Jones could have gone. Tristan Thompson, who put up similar statistics on a worse team, was a surprise pick at No. 4.
After such a strong freshman campaign, the expectation was that Jones would dominate the college game in 2012. Instead, his statistics slipped across the board -- his points, rebounds, assists and blocks were all down from 2011. With his progress seemingly stalled, the armchair psychologists began breaking him down -- Was he too content to blend in? What about his occasionally contentious relationship with Calipari? Oh my, the body language!!
The other way of looking at it was that he was sharing a frontcourt with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As a result, there just weren’t as many points and rebounds to be had as when Josh “Jorts” Harrellson was the starting center. Davis and MKG were the first college teammates in the history of the draft to go No. 1 and No. 2 overall. It would have been a bigger concern if Jones hadn’t been willing to take a back-seat.
If a college team had a No. 1 option in a No. 3 role, you would expect them to do exactly what Kentucky did in 2012. The Wildcats were an all-time great team, going 38-2 and breezing to a national title. They had only two wins within five points, neither in the NCAA Tournament. It’s no wonder Jones looked bored at times -- he didn’t have all that much to do.
He improved as a player, even though his per-game stats were down. No longer the primary option, he had to learn how to pick and choose his spots. As a result, he was more efficient, going from 43 percent to 50 percent shooting. He took 30 less 3’s than he did as a freshman. For the most part, he did a better job of playing within himself and letting the game come to him. For this, he was criticized heavily.
As it turns out, knowing how to “blend in” has been pretty useful for Jones at the next level. He came into college as a combo forward with an iffy jumper, not the ideal skill-set for a complementary player. He shot 33 percent from three at Kentucky, just good enough that he fell in love with the shot a little too much. If he had started jacking up 3’s, like Motiejunas did in his time in the rotation, he would have fallen out of favor too.
The inconsistent jumper is one of many similarities Jones has with Josh Smith. At 6’9 250 with a 7’2 wingspan and a 35’ max vertical, Jones is a prototype small-ball power forward. He has the size to hold ground in the low post, the speed to defend on the perimeter and the athleticism to play above the rim. And while he’s not the playmaker Smith is, he has the ability to create shots off the dribble. Jones can attack a close-out and finish at the rim.
His game isn’t a perfect fit for the Rockets spread-and-chuck system, but he has still found ways to contribute. He moves the ball, makes smart cuts to the rim and only shoots when he’s open. It’s not like he doesn’t have range on his jumper -- he’s 10-23 from 3 this season -- he just doesn’t force the issue. If Jones is open at 12 feet, he can take two steps and dunk, its own way of spacing the floor.
With Jones in the game, the Rockets score 120.6 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they are at 108.5. His ability to clean the glass and run the floor allows them to get out in transition, while his efficiency in the half-court means he doesn’t end many possessions with a turnover or a bad shot. For a guy with his athleticism and finishing ability, it’s easy to be a release valve next to Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons.
The defensive numbers aren’t quite there yet, but he has a lot of potential on that end of the floor. Jones is the second line of defense when Howard makes a rotation, averaging two blocks per-36 minutes. With Howard, Jones and Parsons upfront, the Rockets have the length and athleticism to control the glass and make up for Harden’s defensive shenanigans. If he ever gets dialed in, they have all the pieces to play great defense.
Jones is still only 21; he would be a senior in college this season. In 34 career NBA games, he has a PER of 17.7 and a usage rating of 18.1. Going forward, the sky is the limit to how good he can be. And while his cost-controlled contract makes him a great trade chip, he’s played well enough that Houston doesn’t have to make a move for a PF. Jones won a title as a third option in college; let’s see how he develops in a similar role in the NBA.