When LeBron James didn’t win a championship in any of the first eight seasons of his career, people weren’t satisfied with explanations centered around X’s and O’s. There had to be something wrong with James, as if the playoffs were a morality tale and an inability to win an NBA Finals MVP revealed some sort of deep-set psychological issue.
As it turns out, the biggest difference between his performance in the 2011 and 2012 Finals wasn’t LeBron’s “killer instinct” but his “post game”. When a player isn’t performing up to his capabilities, it’s easy to point the finger at his character and whether he “wants to win”. In reality, the reason usually has more to do with what’s happening on the court than in the psyche.
In the 2012 NBA Draft, Baylor sophomore Perry Jones III has received the brunt of criticism from the armchair psychologists in the basketball community. An incredibly athletic 6’11, 235 forward with a 7’2 wingspan, Jones has one of the best combinations of size, skill and athleticism to come into the NBA in a long time.
However, in his two seasons at Baylor, he only averaged 13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.7 blocks on 52% shooting. Jones, a soft-spoken and unselfish player, didn’t pound his chest and he didn’t dominate that many collegiate games; therefore, the reasoning goes, he’s too “soft” to be an effective NBA contributor. As a result, a player with top of the lottery talent has slipped into the middle of the first round in many mock drafts.
But, unlike Anthony Davis, Jones didn’t walk into a situation where he would be playing with five unselfish future NBA players. In his two seasons for the Bears, the starting guards were AJ Walton (a defensive specialist), LaceDarius Dunn (a guard who lacked Kobe Bryant’s talent but not his willingness to shoot), Pierre Jackson (a score-first junior college transfer) and Brady Heislip (a shooting specialist). So while Davis got the majority of his points on alley-oops, dive cuts and fastbreaks, Jones didn’t have anyone creating easy baskets for him.
Tweety Carter, a four-year senior point guard who had played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, graduated the year before Jones came. And without an elite distributor, Scott Drew’s offense ground to a halt, becoming a loosely organized free-for-all. It’s hard for a big man to get in a rhythm offensively when he can’t count on getting the ball back if he passes it.
The situation was even more absurd on the other end of the floor. Despite having one of the most athletic teams in the country, Drew stubbornly played a 1-3-1 zone, a conceptually weak defense that’s almost never seen in high level basketball.
Most zone teams in college run some sort of variation of the 2-3, which leaves the free-throw line (where very few college big men are effective) open to defend the three-point line and pressure ball-handlers. In contrast, the 1-3-1 guards the middle of the floor at the cost of leaving the corner 3 (the most efficient shot in basketball) unguarded.
And while the 2-3 allows teams to attack passing lanes on the perimeter, the 1-3-1 concedes them. There’s no real way to defend a well-coached, top 25 team for 35 seconds in such a passive zone, yet Drew didn’t change to a man defense until the last game of the season, an Elite Eight loss to Kentucky.
With the formula for beating the 1-3-1 spreading widely through the Big 12, Baylor fell apart at the end of the season. A team that started 17-0 was barely above .500 to finish, going 13-8 in its last 21 games.
Jones, the team’s best player, was often blamed for the Bears struggles, especially as other big men had field days carving up Baylor’s zone. However, he wasn’t responsible for defending Thomas Robinson in their losses to Kansas, and zones, as a rule, give up a lot of offensive rebounds. So while Robinson, an undersized big man without the skill to dominate at the next level, became known for his heart, Jones became known for his lack of it.
The real question is how they would be perceived if they had switched teams. How would Jones have looked playing for Bill Self, an excellent strategist and tactician who adjusts his schemes to fit the talents of his best players? Meanwhile, how would Robinson have looked in the middle of a 1-3-1 zone while playing with guards either unable or unwilling to give him the ball?
I’ve never met Perry Jones, but I’ve watched him play a lot of basketball. And when there are tactical and strategic reasons for why a player isn’t maximizing his potential, I’m going to look at those before I start questioning his ability to succeed at a children’s game because of who he is as a human being.
Jonathan Tjarks wrote on the NBA for RealGM from 2011-2016 before joining The Ringer.
Follow @JonathanTjarks on Twitter.