Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer get you set up for UNLV's stretch run to close out the 2009-10 men's basketball season, plus talk about the impact of the new Mendenhall Center, which will serve as the home for the program for years to come.
His teammates constantly make fun of his hair, which after a couple months of growth is a fledgling afro.
At 6-foot-1 — well, about 6-foot-4 if you include the 'do — he plays as both a back-up guard and power forward, often needing to use his hustle and strength to overcome a size disadvantage.
Nearing the end of his days as a college student, like many soon-to-be graduates, he hasn't the slightest clue what comes next.
And UNLV senior Steve "Chopper" Jones wouldn't change a thing.
He'll enjoy his home swan song on Saturday afternoon when the Rebels (22-7 overall, 10-5 Mountain West Conference) host Wyoming (10-19, 3-12) for a 1 p.m. tip at the Thomas & Mack Center in the regular season finale.
Having spent two years at UNLV after playing his first three out of high school at Arizona State, he'll be leaving fulfilled.
"I wanted a chance to, at the end of my career, be able to look back and say I gave everything I had, I did everything I could," he said. "I didn't want to say 'Well, what if this had happened?' or 'What if that had happened?' I was able to come here and everything just kind of fell into place."
Of course, it wasn't just handed to Jones at UNLV, just like opportunities weren't just handed to him anywhere along the way on the court.
The son of Steve "Snapper" Jones, who played nine seasons in the ABA and NBA from 1967-76, he stopped putting pressure on himself to be the same player his father was earlier on than most sons of greats, as some never get over that mental hump.
"I stopped feeling that in high school, around my sophomore year," he said. "It was tough, because my dad was a great player in Oregon, my uncles were great, so there's a little tradition with the name around there.
"My dad was like 'Let it go, just be yourself, just have fun.' Everyone has their own path. That's what he told me. I try to follow my own path, do what I can do."
What the younger Jones has done best is provide a constant lift for those around him.
On his high school team at Jesuit High in Portland, Ore., he was named the team's most inspirational player as both a junior and a senior. He earned the same honors — voted on by his teammates — last season while redshirting for the Rebels.
He did then what he still does today — bring life on the practice floor and everywhere else. He's not afraid to talk a little trash and take the backlash if it means getting more out of his teammates.
"He's been good for two years as far as energy, laughter, he's always playing hard, he's an emotional guy and each team should have one of those," said UNLV assistant coach Lew Hill, who works regularly with the scout team in practice which Jones leads. "I wasn't familiar with him (coming in), didn't know what to expect, though I knew he played hard.
"But I didn't know he would have that much emotion behind it, and he's been fun to coach and fun to be around."
His constant hard efforts on the practice floor earned him a spot towards the back end of Lon Kruger's rotation as a senior.
His averages (1.7 ppg, 1.1 rpg) aren't numbers which will stand out by any means, but his willingness to do anything Kruger asks is hard to not be impressed with.
"I think what we had hoped to get from Chop is exactly what we have gotten," Kruger said. "Maybe minutes in games, we didn't know for sure how all that would work out, but that's worked out well for him. He's really appreciated by his teammates, and that's the biggest part."
Early in the season, he was crucial in helping the Rebels find some consistency with their rotation as other transfers and younger guys were coming along and still getting settled in. He played as many as 20 minutes in a November home win over UNR. In that game, Jones scored five points and dished two assists during a key spurt to help the Rebels pull away after trailing the Wolf Pack in the first half.
As the season's worn on, Jones's role in terms of minutes has lessened, but the significance of the tasks put on him hasn't.
Just look at the guys he's often guarding.
"We definitely make jokes on him, but it's all in fun," junior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "We tell him he's the smallest (power forward) in the country."
"He can battle the fours, bang with them a bit, but he can also use his quickness and his low center of gravity to win those battles. He comes in with a lot of energy, mixes it up, stirs up the game and gives the team a different look."
What Jones lacks in height, he makes up for in not only build — he could be, pound-for-pound, the strongest player on the team — but also experience.
Coming into this season, he was no stranger to playing down in the paint, recalling defending current Minnesota Timberwolves star and former UCLA standout Kevin Love in the state title game as a senior at Jesuit. He regularly played the four-spot as a prep baller.
But he's also the team's resident old soul.
This rings especially true via his Twitter feed, where Jones will constantly reference himself as getting old, dropping pearls of personal wisdom along the way.
At just 23, he's the roster's senior citizen by default, and one of just two players the Rebels will lose off of this year's club along with forward Darris Santee.
After Saturday comes next week's Mountain West Conference tournament at the Mack, followed by a potential bid in the NCAA tournament.
The only certainty — or near-certainty — in Jones's near future is that a hair cut is in store. Or at least he says one will be prior to Senior Day festivities on Saturday.
"It's pretty awful," Willis said of the current mini-fro. "It's pretty dry and matted. He's got to do something about it. Get some of that SoulGlo or something in there.
"When you look at him, it just looks like he rolled out of bed and doesn't care."
Even if it means he takes some jokes about his hair, Jones's lively presence keeps guys like Willis loose no matter what the situation.
Surely, that kind of energy will apply somewhere in the "real world" when this charmed run is done.
"I try and be as positive as can be and try to have as much fun (as I can)," he said. "I'm doing what I want to do, what I've dreamed of. I get to play basketball, go to school, that's all I have to do. I don't have 'real world' problems.
"Well, all those 'real world' problems I haven't had are about to hit me in the face."
— Junior forward Matt Shaw returned to live drills in practice on Tuesday for the first time since spraining his left ankle before the Rebels' 66-61 loss at Utah on Feb. 17. Junior guard Derrick Jasper (knee) did not make a similar return on Tuesday, and the team is off on Wednesday before returning to the practice floor on Thursday afternoon at the Mack. Shaw looked comfortable on Tuesday and could return to game action on Saturday.
— Practice on Tuesday was run without Kruger and assistant coach Steve Henson present. The duo hit the recruiting trail and spent the afternoon in Salt Lake City checking out Brighton High junior guard Corbin Miller. The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Miller is known as a sharp-shooting scorer, and is also being pursued by the likes of Arizona State, Utah and Gonzaga.